Monday, May 02, 2011
113. Centenarian Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira’s “O Estranho Caso de Angelica” (The Strange Case of Angelica) (2010): Mixing illusion and reality with the mystery of life and death
One is never sure if any hundred year old can walk or even talk coherently. When you see a feature film made by a '102+ '-year-old that can make the grade to enter the 2010 Cannes official Un certain regard section, your jaws drop. The 102 or 103 year old Manoel de Oliveira’s reported physical handicaps are limited to walking with the aid of a stick and a minor hearing problem and, believe it or not, is busy making another movie after the recent The Strange Case of Angelica.
The Strange Case of Angelica is indeed a ghost story but to classify it merely as one would be missing the wood for the trees. If one is looking for a good ghost story movie, one ought to see The Others or Yella, not this one. If one is looking for special effects associated with ghost stories, this is far from one that can be recommended. It is definitely not a commercial film: it is merely a film that can make you think. It provides a cinematic repast for an audience that is able to look beyond the decades-old technicalities that would annoy the impatient, modern hi-tech cineaste. Rather than a typical ghost story, this movie is all about capturing the ephemeral beauty of this world of fleeting moments of Joycean epiphanies on film, if you will, for posterity,
Director de Oliviera is probably one of the very few film directors from the silent film era still making movies in the 21st century. He has made some 60 films in the past 80 years. But what is most remarkable is that his films have a certain transcendental quality, often imperceptible to many. The Strange Case of Angelica is a tale written by de Oliveira in 1952, a half century ago for the screen but only executed today. And therefore the purist would find contradictions in the conversations in the film on global warming that are anachronistic for a film that is set in the Fifties. But then this is a sensitive tale from a man who loves cinema, photography, and sound. Had de Oliveira made this film 50 years ago, I am very sure that the mature philosophical turn of the final product would have been missing. It takes a very old man who has lived through life’s many twists and turns to make a film like this one.
The Strange Case of Angelica is about a still photographer—the starting point of any one who loves cinema. The photographer is different, he eats little, he loves the radio, he is an introvert, and is a person trying to catch the elusive beauty of actions being erased by time. The photographer spends hours trying to capture for future generations the feel of a chain of farmers preparing a farm field to grow another crop while of all of them sing a chorus that provide a hypnotic rhythm for the actions of the group. Much later in the film, the photographer revisits the same spot and finds to his dismay the field preparation has been replaced by a clunky tractor—gone are the men and the song. Even though the camera of the photographer has captured the visual beauty, it is cinema that captures the sounds that will be lost in time. Cinema and photography can make time stand still by illusion. That is the precise beauty of the de Oliveira film.
The movie is somewhat autobiographical—de Oliveira was a farmer and obviously realizes that his days on earth are numbered. The photographer in the film is an extension of de Oliveira, the film director (in fact the actor is his real life grandson). Are the hoes in the hands of the farmers a subtle image of the grim reaper for an old man? The film is evidently a poem on the magic that you can find through the view finder capturing the elusive image that you wish can stay with you forever. Here in this film it is a moment of magic realism where a dead woman comes alive through the viewfinder. So is the image of the farmers. So is the bird in a cage.
The Strange Case of Angelica is much more than a tale of a dead woman coming alive in the mind of a young man. It is ostensibly a love story of two individuals who have never met in life, but is destined to meet and be together after death. The beauty of life and death is what this film captures through some amazing sequences. One such sequence in the film is of a cat staring at a bird in a cage, considering the prospect of the bird as its next meal. The cat’s delicious thoughts are hoed down by a dog’s bark—the cat soon realizes that it has to save its own skin. Another amazing bit of conversation in the film relates to a pet bird being fed the remains of an egg and the surprising death of the bird that results from the innocent action.
The film has much to do with philosophy—the opening quote in the film that I do not now fully recollect, had something to link time standing still and God in us. It is not without relevance that a trivial conversation within the film set in 1952 discusses “anti-matter searching for the precise opposite.” For the record the film’s tale revolves around a Jew in post-Second World War Catholic Portugal. A Jew encounters death of a Christian woman and a Jew deals with a photographic death and resurrection following visits to a Church. There is even a passing out in an olive grove. (Much of de Oliveira’s cinema contains suggestive Christian motifs for those familiar with Biblical passages.) The soul departs leaving the body behind. These are interesting images, not statements, in the film. Statements from the film have to be viewed in the context of visuals and sound.
This film has much for a viewer to reflect on. And film is not just a visual crossword puzzle to solve. It has an aural puzzle as well. The Chopin selection and application in the film needs attention. As the credits roll, you hear the very same chorus of the farmers that so fascinated the photographer earlier in the film. That’s de Oliveira’s nudge on the importance of sound that has a magic realism of its own. The bird in the cage flutters when death takes place elsewhere in the room. As the landlady closes the windows and draws the curtains to underscore death, you begin to reflect on this strange film that mixes hallucination, science, music and philosophy. It is a sensitive, delicate film that is unlikely to be appreciated by the conventional filmgoer who prefers a cut-and-dry tale. If you relish the film you will realize that this film could not have been made by a young person. Beyond the lack of modern craftsmanship lies a deep tale of mystery and philosophy rejecting modern machines (loud impersonal efficient farm machinery for one) and modern photography, all the while celebrating a mystical charm of the old world.
P.S. The German ghost film Yella was reviewed earlier on this blog.