Monday, December 27, 2010

THE STRANGE CASE OF ANGELICA: Manoel de Oliveira's mystifying opus opens at IFC

To call this film "slight" is to hugely overstate the case. With enough content to perhaps fill an animated short subject (which the movie may remind you of -- but without the required animation and with a seemingly endless running-time of 97 minutes) -- THE STRANGE CASE OF ANGELICA (O Estranho Caso de Angélica), is yet another odd bauble from the 102-year-old Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveria. As was his most recent movie (Eccentricities of a Blond-Haired Girl), the new one is also about the nitwit, obsessive love of a man for a woman he does not know. The earlier film's ill-chosen love object turned out to be a shoplifter. We've graduated: This one's a corpse.

Loony as this may sound, Oliveira (pictured at left) makes it even stranger (well, it is titled The Strange Case...). His main character is hired in the middle of the night to take photos of the newly deceased, and as he shoots, he falls. And so, it would seem, does the corpse for him. She opens her eyes during the shoot, gives him a wink and a smile, and then begins appearing to our shut-terbug at odd times, taking him for sky-rides in the air, a la Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, but with the sexes and control reversed. It's all story-book and asexual: kids at play.

Obsession being what it is, however, our hero must investigate further, and so he visits the family of his new love (they, shown below, are not amused), then to the graveyard and elsewhere. Growing nuttier over time, he is eventually driven to grab the gates of the cemetery and scream, "Angelica!" at the top of his lungs. Unfortunately, the actor assigned to this role, Ricardo Trêpa (shown above, center, often used by Oliveira and also the lead in his "Eccentricities") is not the sort of performer who commands the screen.  In the recent Spanish Cinema Now film Julia's Eyes, much is made of a character so ordinary looking that he seem to literally blend into the wallpaper. No one in the film can remember what he looks like or anything distinguishing about him. Mr. Trêpa would have made an perfect choice for this role. Here, even screaming at those cemetery gates, he fails to register. But perhaps this is the filmmaker's point: the one-sidedness of obsessive love.

There may be other points here, as well: the pettiness and conven-tionality of the bourgeois mentality, the worth of manual labor, the transitory nature of love and life and their connection to death. Oddly, however, though this film lasts more than a half-hour longer than the earlier Eccentricities, its pleasures are noticeably fewer. Not nearly as beautiful to view as its predecessor (except for that shot of our "heroine" -- the lovely Pilar López de Ayala -- below), it seems as small and cramped as the boarding house in which our hero lives -- despite those trips aloft with the floating corpse.

During the film, a statue in the town's center keeps pointing the way, but no one, most of all the filmmaker, manages to find it.  Still, this is such as "personal" and quirky little movie that I suppose -- whatever it thinks it is about and for -- the filmmaker himself was probably more than satisfied with its outcome.

The Strange Case of Angelica, distributed by Cinema Guild, opens in New York at the IFC Center this Wednesday, December 29. Click here for further playdates around the country, scheduled, at this point in time, for February and March 2011.

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