Manoel de Oliveira is 101 years old—let’s get that out of the way. That he’s a great filmmaker, and that his new work, The Strange Case of Angelica, is a great film, proves much more interesting. The movie evokes what the Portuguese call saudades, or sentimental longing, but literally reincarnates melancholy as joy.
Ricardo Trêpa, de Oliveira’s alter ego (he even played the director in 2000’s essay film Oporto of My Childhood), plays Isaac, a Jewish photographer in the small town of Regua hired to photograph a just-deceased wealthy woman. The beautiful corpse shines translucent white, and as he takes her picture he suddenly sees her smile. It had to have been a dream, he thinks, until he keeps seeing her. She visits him in his room at night, and he whispers, “Angelica,” and smiles back.
Like many of the director’s films, which he began making in the 1930s and which he has been producing steadily since the 1970s (working since the 1980s at a rate of one or two a year), the piece deals with a man’s longing for an ephemeral woman, which in turn becomes a longing for an ephemeral past. The desire reached its highest point of blissed-out frustration in 2006’s Belle Toujours, when the beautiful Bulle Ogier, playing a role that Catherine Deneuve had originated, told a suitor that she wasn’t the same woman anymore. Yet the past in de Oliveira’s work always seems to occupy the same space as the present, all coexisting within a theatrical long shot.
Angelica materializes in Isaac’s room gradually, and when he flies off into the night with her the wires are patently clear. Rather than remove you from the drama by calling attention to their artifice, though, the bare, plain nature of the special effects make it all seem matter-of-fact. A man loving a ghost may seem unrealistic, but once upon a time in Portugal (and not so long ago) it wasn’t much more unrealistic than a rich girl marrying a poor boy was, or a Catholic marrying a Jew.
De Oliveira has said that “cinema is the phantom of the moment, not life itself…cinema is always memory, just as literature and history are memory.” For most of the day Isaac inhabits a color world, but Angelica appears to him in black and white, recalling old movies; her sudden materializing recalls the trick films of cinema’s original magician, Georges Méliès. Furthermore, as a photographer Isaac’s been preserving memories before he met her. A key subplot shows him photographing rural workers whose work machines will soon replace, each of whom steps in front of him and directly faces the camera. At these moments, Isaac is the filmmaker. The developing images of the men, hanging in his darkroom, stay next to Angelica’s portraits to form a kind of class solidarity. But the fact that Angelica’s portrait animates while the others stay still doesn’t prioritize her over them. Some of the film’s last music is the sound of the workers singing, even after Isaac’s left the movie. De Oliveira began as a documentary filmmaker, and one of his first features, Rite of Spring (which played yesterday at the New York film Festival), was a filming of a passion play. For him, movies record the past as well as entertain present audiences. That his present film can preserve both the heavenly Angelica and the earthbound workers suggests how cinema can keep the past alive in its entirety.
Film is a phantom, then, but a living one. Like Certified Copy and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the festival main slate’s two other unqualified masterpieces, The Strange Case of Angelica uses cinema as a tool for reconciliation. All three movies bring disparate characters together on screen—people of different nationalities, classes, races, religions, ages, sexualities, genders, and political backgrounds, human and non-human animals, and even the living and the dead—and then suggest that we go one step further, and overlook the boundary between film and the external world. They also all harmonize with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s classic 1946 fantasy A Matter of Life and Death, which the festival is showing on October 8, and in which WWII casualties come back to life again through the movies. For De Oliveira, the afterlife holds exactly the definition the word suggests—not death, but a continuation. Cinema is the bridge between one world and the next. His vision proves so sweet, so hopeful, and finally so delightful that all you can say afterward is “God bless you.”
The 48th New York Film festival runs from September 24 to October 10. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.