By Eric Kohn | Indiewire December 29, 2010 at 5:14AM
Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira has generated plenty of press simply because of his age—at 102, he is recognized as the oldest working filmmaker alive today—but his latest works appear to exist outside of time. "The Strange Case of Angelica," the Portuguese director's latest feature, falls in step with other recent outings like "Christopher Columbus, the Enigma" and "Eccentricities of a Blonde Girl" by drawing attention to its abnormalities in every scene. The story of a young photographer romantically drawn to the snapshot of a dead woman, "Angelica" features an extraordinarily patient exposition familiar from his other projects but defiantly odd in this particular context. At times somewhat creaky, the movie still succeeds at creating a profoundly unique cinematic experience.
Isaac (Oliveira grandson Ricardo Trêpa) gets summoned on a dark and stormy night—a clichéd backdrop made anew by Oliveira's sense of remove—to take the aforementioned picture of the recently deceased Angelica (Pilar López) as "one last souvenir" for her bereaved Catholic family. Peeking through the lens, he sees what nobody else does: Angelica opens her eyes and smiles at him. It won't be the first time. Secretly yearning for "that place of absolute love," Isaac can't stop thinking about Angelica. He repeatedly fawns over her photograph and possibly has an out-of-body experience with her, although it might be a dream. In fact, everything in "Angelica" might be a dream, given its intimately pensive rhythms that hover just outside any semblance of real life.
Oliveira's style invests heavily in metaphysical qualities that call attention to its design. A typically static camera, pregnant pauses, and deadpan delivery flesh out his surrealist tendencies, while the light piano score underscores Isaac's drifting awareness of the world around him. Nothing quite adds up. "Angelica" features antiquated dialogue and technology (including Isaac's use of film rather than digital imaging) despite an apparent contemporary setting. But it's not like Oliveira has lost touch with the changing times, since the movie features some mesmerizing special effects of its own to represent the specter of Angelica that continues to haunt Isaac at every turn. The off-kilter aura meditates on the past and present by transmitting both at once.
When Isaac's garrulous landlord notices that "he's becoming strange," it becomes clear that the title of the movie refers to an event located entirely within his consciousness. That justifies Oliveira's fanciful approach and clarifies his irreverent symbolism, which is often dryly humorous. At one point, Isaac leaves the frame while the camera lingers for several seconds on a cat fixated on the caged bird above it, an obvious but nevertheless effective mirroring of Isaac's obsession with forces beyond his comprehension.
At its core, "Angelica" focuses on Isaac's desire to transcend ethereal boundaries and achieve his romantic ideal. This interdimensional yearning, both cosmic and absurd, turns the feature into an avant-garde equivalent of "Somewhere in Time," with dreaminess in place of the gooey sentimentalism. Isaac's psychological journey offers the only reason to keep watching, so the appeal of the plot dwindles whenever Oliveira shifts his attention from the starry-eyed hero to the droll conversations of the other residents in his building. But "Angelica" concludes on a spellbinding note with the kind of poignant happy ending that requires no particular age to acquire comprehension. Beyond the trancelike exterior, the strangest thing about "Angelica" is how its fundamental mysteries convey something universally familiar.
criticWIRE grade: B+