Often I get the sense that serious movies are the rarest kind of them all. I don’t mean the easily self-serious and pretentious films, films closed to mockery through riskless gravity. The most serious leave room—dangerous room—for failure. They need that room to necessitate a leap of faith—if the film isn’t willing to risk something, how can we truly take it seriously? As such, love stories can be the most serious of them all, and the hardest to beautifully pull off. We sing high praises for Hollywood’s sincere sentimentalist—and sentimental sincerest—Frank Borzage, and with The Strange Case of Angelica it is a delight to see Manoel de Oliveira apply a cerebral, shaded touch to a Borzagian, risk-taking, haunted love story.
As in all recent Oliveira, everything is deceptively simple: Isaac (Oliveira’s perennial youth, Ricardo Trêpa), a young photographer, falls in love with a dead girl he photographs. Through his viewfinder, and later his still images, he sees moving, smiling, radiant life. Suddenly his still, ascetic existence as an old world outcast—he’s a Sephardic Jew who delights in poetry, old radios, and appreciates the outdated, dying beauty of the countryside working class—is transformed by irrational love into a hopeless existence. Like Garrel’s Frontier of Dawn—which similarly took some inspiration from Cocteau—Oliveira conjures ghostly love through the sheer risky pleasure of hokey special effects so earnest with belief they are impossible to laugh at. Méliès is seen in the naïve splendor of Isaac’s dreams of flying with his love, and the intellectual heroes common to 19th century literature, angst ridden by wrestling with themselves and their place in the world, are suggested by the muffled humor of the old societies—the dead girl’s religious-aristocratic household and the compassionate inquisitiveness of his landlady and her opinionated friends—that fail to understand Isaac’s passion.
Angelica’s anxious old world / new world dream—where photography and moving images inspire the dreamer—is shot in concrete grays where the world’s small pleasures are in dawn’s light falling on Isaac’s face as he gazes at his mysterious moving picture, or the afternoon slanting in from the door to the rumpled bed linen telling the story of another night of wrestling with visions of a solemn world and an impossible love. Trucks rumble by under his window, and across the river from his humble home is the splotchy hillside where the vineyard workers are being replaced by machines. As in Borzage, escape from the world’s ails to the bliss of an otherworldly love is at once the most cowardly and most heroic of actions, and since our haunting ghost is played by the beaming Pilar López de Ayala, Isaac’s ultimate act is a leap of faith that’s not hard to understand at all.