The Strange Case of Angelica (2010)

4 12 2010

This is my first Manoel de Oliveira. An odd film. Girl dies. Her family requests a photographer. Ergo, a young man travels to the family’s mansion to photograph the dead girl during her wake. While accomplishing this, he falls in love with her beauty, or seems to, although what really happens is that he beholds her angelic smiling face, watches in terror as her eyes open, and upon realizing that he’s the only one at the wake who witnessed this secret miracle, he flees from the mansion in terror. Several nights of ghostly dreams and several days of idyllic farm-work await. These latter occasions are a pet obsession of our photographer protagonist: he likes to snap pictures of the toiling men scraping the earth with their hoes. There are scenes of platonic love as the main character hallucinates with the dead girl or screams at her tomb. There are scenes of ostensible drama as the somber participants of the wake shuffle in the shadows or as the mansion’s maid unveils her bitterness towards the meek photographer. The film ends on a tragic note. By the time we get to the credits, we are supposed to have seen a bittersweet love story.

But the tragedy or the drama barely registers as such. Oliveira’s camera spies events from a ghost’s perspective. Every image is detached from life, distant in a truly unreal way. None of the typical dramatic scenes have any weight to them. Characters mourn on-screen, but they are really going through the motions of mourning, going through the motions of platonic love. Everything is staged like a satire. We think we are watching drama. We are really watching a comedy. As if the play on life’s stage were trivial. Our ghost of a camera gazes at the spectacle of human performance before it as if it were amused by the endeavor. It cares for the characters, but it apparently finds their attempts to grasp the truth of things — of love, of death, of life — inadequate, though endearing and even honorable in their inadequacy. Maybe that’s stretching it a bit. I am trying to figure out what this movie is doing. On the one hand, it is entirely superficial. None of the scenes that call for emotional power actually wield it. In its self-consciously old-fashioned manner, The Strange Case of Angelica is entirely superficial. We don’t get drama, but a play on drama.

Yet the film still brushes against the transcendental. As if it were in touch with some truth beyond the human performance of love and mourning, beyond the story. Or rather, a truth around the performance, because in real life that performance can certainly have a lot of truth to it. Our attempts to convey or grasp the truth of terrible or beautiful moments are most certainly inadequate, but that unavoidable failure is always part of the point. Not in this film, however. Absolutely no one during the wake comes across as a human being. They are more like automatons pacing inside a lugubrious house while pretending to mourn. This is okay. In the world of The Strange Case of Angelica, the comings and goings of people are increasingly mechanic, kitschy, self-evidently rehearsed, and stilted. What emerges as truthful, however, is some sort of cosmic wholeness: landscapes, moods, atmosphere; photographs swaying in unison while clothespined to a string; farmers hoeing while the photographer’s camera snaps under the afternoon sun; the photographer peering from his balcony as the sunlight flattens the composition into a two-dimensional fresco; interior scenes transforming into extreme long-shots of the city landscape; smoke contorting itself in its flight towards the clothespined photographs; a room revolutionized by a replaced light-bulb; a mourning husband crying for the dead girl with the city skyline behind him; the rows of filled seats during a church burial service creating perspective arrows pointing towards the protagonist, or rather crushing him, not like arrows now, but like the two hands of a pair of tweezers, squeezing the already weakened photographer into submission. Things of this sort. Despite all its kitschy superficiality, or because of it, Angelica has much of the spiritual and the ethereal to it. Human movements are inadequate performances displaying their lifelong failure atop a stage of beautiful mysteries and enigmatic sights. At least in this film.

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