The cinema of Manoel de Oliveira is one of perspective. Not from the vantage of the 104-year-old centenarian himself—though that’s an inevitable thematic by-product for a filmmaker whose career dates back to the silent era—but that of his camera and, by extension, his characters who gaze at, through, or in discrepancy with Oliveira’s frame. His late work in particular has taken his typically strategic approach to directional composition to uniquely playful ends, suggesting at once a much younger artist and one who has accumulated decades of narrative and stylistic skill. At any given point in these films the viewer may be placed inside the protagonist’s head—via either voiceover, flashback, or point-of-view set-ups—spatially removed from the action to observe objectively from a static position, or put in direct eye contact with a given character, which often leads to further inquiries regarding omniscience or simply the role we play in completing said portrayal.
Oliveira’s 2010 film, The Strange Case of Angelica, is a particularly fascinating study in visual schematics, as it continually proposes familiar devices for representational engagement only to subvert the typical function of these aesthetic constructions. Befitting its fantastical milieu, Oliveira’s fable, concerning the plight of an emotionally wayward photographer named Isaac (Ricardo Trêpa) who’s commissioned to capture the radiant visage of the young Angelica (Pilar López de Ayala) who has passed away under mysterious circumstances, engages with an entire spectrum of antiquated, classical and modernist cinematic resources. At various instances Isaac can be seen gazing purposefully through the eye of his camera (both at Angelica, who seems to smile at him as he frames his shots, and a group of laborers tilling the nearby countryside), yearningly out the window of his rented flat, or passionately into an indeterminate emotional—possibly physical—space just off camera.
Oliveira instills doubt in the viewer’s response to these episodes just as he does in Isaac by eliding definitive proof of their occurrence—or, more specifically, the consequence of their occurrence as Isaac appears to experience them on screen. About halfway through the film Isaac encounters the most perplexing of all his visions as he awakens from his sleep to find Angelica’s glowing silhouette before him in life-like form. As he’s spent the entirety of the film up to this point yearning for Angelica through the frozen beauty of his photographs, the moment is met for both him and the viewer as a magical realization of his innermost desire. Instinctively embracing Angelica, the two ascend from Isaac’s balcony as the digital photography subtly de-saturates and the pair are left to float across the horizon bathed in radiant, oceanic black-and-white. Audio is likewise discarded and before long it’s apparent that what is transpiring is reconciliation both for Isaac, whose emotional and mental obsession meet physical manifestation head-on, and for Oliveira, whose roots as a silent cinema practitioner flower forth in spiritual accord with his seasoned, formalist sensibility.
The purposefully antiquated techniques Oliveira utilizes during this sequence are part and parcel of the world he’s created. Isaac works with an vintage camera, the tools of the hillside laborers he documents equally outdated (“Old fashioned work interests me,” he justifies), while the apartment where he resides is bereft of most modern conveniences (early on in the film he’s seen fiddling with an antique radio) at the same time that the language spoken amongst the townsfolk tends toward the arch and unfashionable. In lieu of Oliveira’s modernist methodology, the influence of one time contemporaries Fritz Lang and Georges Méliès manifest in its stead. The latter proves a particularly apt touchstone, as Oliveira’s crude visuals—aerial wire rigging, rear-screen projection, matte drawings (or, at the very least, computer generated approximations of these effects)—feel as if they’ve been inspired by Méliès’s many impossible voyages and proverbial trips to the moon. This is not the first time Oliveira has referenced his cinematic heritage—the makeshift backdrops and absurdist nightmare designs of The Satin Slipper and The Cannibals, to name but two examples, point toward a bygone era of hand-crafted filmmaking—but in many ways this feels like the purest expression of this legacy.
And yet another look at how Oliveira frames this sequence throws the implications of Isaac’s experience into sharp relief. Isaac eventually awakens from his night flight with Angelica as if from a dream; so lucid, in fact, that he wonders aloud, “Could I have been to that place of absolute love I’ve heard about?” As we have witnessed life-like mannerisms from a seemingly inanimate Angelica in prior scenes, we’re inclined to accept her appearance as depicted, even in a form resembling a ghost. But then Isaac never stops questioning his visions even as he continues to pursue a likely futile goal, suggesting that we should perhaps be equally skeptical such occurrences. As the scene opens and Isaac rises from his slumber, he approaches a wardrobe at the foot of his bed, staring at an angle into a mirror which appears to be inviting him to open his subconscious. If this is indeed a dream, where does it begin? And if not, are Isaac’s illusions limited to solely to his purview?
In the film’s final shot, we see a presumed-dead Isaac arise yet again from unconsciousness at the second appearance of Angelica on his balcony, a bedside doctor seemingly in position to notice this intersection of the mortal and the spectral. But he’s struck by an involuntary blow from Isaac, his glasses falling to the floor, thus impeding not only his chance at glimpsing this phenomenon but the viewer’s opportunity at contextual reassurance as well. Real or imagined Isaac and Angelica will live on together in eternity, Oliveira seems to be implying, our emotional correspondence shaped by his refusal to offer concrete designations between life and death, fantasy and reality. Like Isaac, he’s left us in the throes of ambiguity, our innate understanding of these events the only honest viewpoint from which to proceed forth from this strange case of resurrection and release. [Fandor]