After a century on this planet and seven decades in the cinema, Manoel de Oliveira has earned the right to turn out whatever type of film he chooses, and if lately that work takes the form of concise little fables, then it has to be said that his latest effort, the lovely, deceptively simple Strange Case of Angelica is far sturdier than its makeweight precursor Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl. A meditation on modernity, fantasy, and that unique, increasingly anachronistic form of madness known as the cinema, the film wears its intellectualism lightly, so that even a discussion of José Ortega y Gasset seems about as mentally taxing as watching a cat stare down a bird, an event that Oliveira lingers on with loving attention.
When a local princess, Angelica (Pilar López de Ayala), is suddenly struck dead, a desperate late-night search for a photographer to memorialize the corpse leads the estate foreman through the rainy streets of an ancient town and to the house of an absent-minded young shutterbug named Isaac (Ricardo Trêpa). Rushed over to the castle, Isaac finds the beautiful princess arrayed in her wedding dress, spread out in all her splendor on a divan and evincing a wry grin. When Isaac frames her in his viewfinder, she briefly opens her eyes and trains her smile on him. Although the resurrection is but temporary and no one else notices, Isaac is deeply affected by the event and, increasingly distracted, spends his days poring over the photographs he’s taken of the princess with whom he’s clearly fallen in love.
One day, studying a photo of the deceased, he notices that the princess’s eyes are open, but rather than take us into Blowup territory, Oliveira moves us into the realm of pure fantasy. When Isaac turns around, he sees Angelica behind him—a ghostly outline superimposed on the landscape. Stepping out, he becomes a ghost himself and, in the film’s swooningly gorgeous centerpiece, the princess takes Isaac on a nocturnal flight across a grey, star-streaked sky and over a luminous river, the denuded colors and lack of dialogue taking us back to the silent cinema where Oliveira got his start and to a time in which the medium seemed open to endless possibilities for wonder.
After this magical moment, the princess’s appearances become progressively infrequent and ephemeral, while Isaac becomes increasingly obsessed. His distraction, a source of worry for his landlady, is symbolized by a repeated pair of wide-angle shots that place the lovesick man in the left foreground of the screen, oblivious to the engaged discussions transpiring at the table behind him. When he does encounter the princess’s ghost, it’s in fleeting moments of frustration, as when she appears behind him, only to disappear when he turns around or to linger over him in bed, reaching out for him as he for her, but remaining just beyond his grasp.
It’s significant that Isaac is a man defined in opposition to the times in which he lives. As a photographer, he takes great interest in documenting the work of a group of laborers who till the earth by hand, even though his landlady chides him for wasting his time on people performing an outmoded task since, as she constantly reminds him, machines do these jobs nowadays. Similarly, when a pair of engineers laments the cancellation of a bridge-building project due to the “current economic climate,” Isaac evinces little interest in the discussion. Although a young man, he, like Oliveira, clearly belongs to a different era and if he persists in a stubborn romantic fantasy as well as an obsessive dwelling in the anachronistic, so does the movie’s director, who is keenly sensitive to both the changing nature of cinema (in which digital filmmaking has largely replaced celluloid) as well as his own impending mortality.
Speaking of his initial encounter with the ghostly Angelica, Isaac remarks, “That strange reality. Perhaps it was just a hallucination, but it was just as real as [waking life].” In the end, the distinction hardly matters, because as Isaac disappears at last with his ghostly beloved, fulfilling once more the romantic consummation that the movies have provided us with for more than a century, we share in his hallucination which we realize at last has been nothing more nor less than the fantasy life recreated every time we sit down in front of the flickering screen of the cinema.