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The Strange Case of Angelica by Manoel de Oliveira

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for this magical film.

At 103, when most of us are either retired or departed, Manoel de Oliveira is stronger than ever as a filmmaker. He made this gorgeous film, The Strange Case of Angelica, in 2010, at the age of 101. Here’s the trailer; this is a gorgeous, deeply felt film, with more than a touch of Oliveira’s usual humor.

A young photographer, Isaac (Ricardo Trêpa) is summoned to the home of a rich landowner, to photograph his daughter, Angelica (Pilar López de Ayala) who has just died, shortly after being married, and is lying in state with a serene smile on her face. To Isaac’s shock, when he looks through the viewfinder of his camera, Angelica seems to return to life, and smile at him warmly, though no one else in the room sees this. When he returns to his small room in a boarding house where he lives, Isaac develops the photos, and once again sees Angelica seemingly beckoning to him from the beyond.

What happens next is a sublime mystery, which I won’t reveal here, other than to echo the words of Jim Hoberman, Manohla Dargis, and numerous other critics; the film is a masterpiece, one of the most deeply felt films of recent memory, and a splendid antidote to the junk being churned out by the major studios.

The DVD of The Strange Case of Angelica also contains Manoel de Oliveira’s first film, Douro, Faina Fluvial (Labor on the Douro River, 1931); a documentary on Oliveira’s work by by Paulo Rocha; and an interview with Oliveira shot during the production of the film, entitled Absoluto, in which Oliveira contemplates the moral bankruptcy of modern cinema, rattles off a list of his favorite directors (including Godard, Bresson, Kiarostami, Welles, Ford, and numerous others), and deplores the “brain washing” that is currently taking place with the “forced consensus” of mass media.

All in all, The Strange Case of Angelica is a gorgeous film, which you absolutely should not miss if you have any love for the cinema at all; available in DVD or Blu-ray; take your pick. Oliveira has the distinction of being the oldest continually active filmmaker in the history of the cinema; he is also, thankfully, one of the greatest, whose work, amazingly, only improves with age. The Strange Case of Angelica is a romantic, thoughtful, absolutely transcendent work — please see it without delay.

The charm of The Strange Case of Angelica lies in the way it balances this mysticism with a thoroughly secular sense of the business of everyday life. Not that any of the nonsupernatural occurrences that surround Isaac — the Greek-chorus chitchat among his landlady and her friends; the steady work in the fields and olive groves; the rise and fall of empires and economies — are exactly banal. The world as seen through Mr. Oliveira’s lens is as fresh as if it had just been discovered and as thick with secrets as if it had always existed.

Of course, both things are more or less true, and Oliveira’s film has the added virtue of feeling entirely original even as it evokes a number of rich literary and cinematic traditions. As a ghost story, it owes more to Henry James’ psychological curiosity than to Edgar Allan Poe’s sensationalism, but it is also indebted to the various kinds of realism that flourished, in film and in novels, in the early and middle decades of the last century. Finally, though, it exhausts comparison, even to other films by this director, who has both done everything and is just getting started.” – A.O. Scott, The New York Times 12/28/2010

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Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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