Set in the 1950s, a photographer is asked by hotel owners to take portraits… (Cinema Guild )
At age 102, the visionary Portuguese grand master writer-director Manoel de Oliveira is celebrating his 80th year as a filmmaker with a magical masterpiece, the enchanting yet provocative "The Strange Case of Angelica," a stunning tribute to the power of the image and the longing for perfect love that Oliveira suggests can exist only with the possibility of an afterlife. This fresh, highly original film, inspired by Oliveira's substantially different, never-filmed 1952 script, has been made with the greatest of ease and simplicity and with drollery and wit, yet its underlying impact is profoundly spiritual.
In the dark of night in an inviting midsized city bisected by a river, a young photographer, Isaac (Ricardo Trêpa), has been summoned to the estate of a powerful aristocratic family to photograph the recently deceased Angelica (Pilar López de Ayala) as she lies in repose with a serene, beatific expression on her face — an image her mother wants preserved in pictures. Struck by the beauty of the young woman, Isaac shoots from different angles, but when he focuses on her face, she opens her eyes and smiles.
How the sensitive, intelligent Isaac is affected by this experience, whether real or imagined, is a point of departure for Oliveira, not only to contemplate the nature of romantic love but also to consider workings and mysteries of the universe and how everything in life is interconnected, with a constant interplay between the antagonistic and the harmonious. Science, religion, love, even the current recession figure in his consideration of the relationship between life and death and the endurance of the Earth in the face of constant change.
"The Strange Case of Angelica" is film of natural portrayals that come from within its actors and a work of great beauty. As with Michelangelo Antonioni, Oliveira can pause to hold an image to allow its beauty and meaning to seep into our souls. At a great age, Oliveira embraces the universe with a philosophical warmth, great depth, perception and wisdom, and miraculously, he possesses the vigor and rigor to express all that he has contemplated. If perfect love is the province of the afterlife, such a unified vision of the universe can be expressed only in art.