What a sly, slippery film O Estranho Caso de Angélica (The Strange Case of Angelica) (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal, 2011) is–it really should be a minor, forgettable trifle, dangling as it is on the most delicately trivial of plots. Which in itself is rather odd, because as the oldest working filmmaker–“nearly as old as cinema itself,” as Manohla Dargis nicely puts it–de Oliveira has certainly reached a point where he has every reason to make films of sweeping statements and impressive ruminations, with a gravity and sense of significance befitting his most distinguished age of 102.
But he seems adamant in his resistance to playing “grand old man of the cinema,” and rather than weighing down his films with plot and narrative instead opts for a silly little scrap of a story–a young man who becomes bewitched by a beautiful dead woman he was asked to photograph–and then patiently observes as this situation plays itself out within the hermetic little Portuguese farm community in which it takes place.
And it is from this deliberate, confident patience which suddenly imbues the film with an unexpected gravity… I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened, but there was a moment during the film when it suddenly hit me that this was very clearly the work of an individual who has literally experienced an entire century, and who is aware of dimensions of time and history others are not privy to. Subtly and effortlessly de Oliveria conveys both the ebb and flow of entire eras (traditions quickly passing into oblivion) and the smaller cycles within them that compose the every day (noisy trucks passing under a window each morning at dawn), of the way different generations interact with each other and the ways that they talk past each other, and finally, of the way that history is inscribed onto the surface of spaces and objects and how they remain while human lives cycle around them endlessly.
And, on a more personal note, there’s also a layer of poignance and resonance for me when watching de Oliveira’s films of sensing my own family history surfacing on the screen: my family roots also lie in rural Porto of the north, and at unexpected moments–in the walk of an old woman, the swing of a grape hoe, or, most particularly, the traditional songs–I can almost sense, for just a split-second, my family mythologies come to life before my eyes. And for me, that is much more magical than the appearances of the ghostly specter of the title.
A masterful film by a true master of cinema, though blink for a moment, and you might not recognize it.