Whenever a filmmaker lives and works as long as centenarian Manoel de Oliveira, it’s hard not to see each new piece of work as potentially the last, making it a kind of summary statement on life and art. The Strange Case Of Angelica encourages that kind of reading with its premise alone. Ricardo Trêpa plays a photographer who’s summoned in the middle of the night to shoot a portrait of a corpse: a lovely young woman named Angelica (played by Pilar López de Ayala). Her family has posed her with an enigmatic smile, which strikes Trêpa as odd. Even odder? When Trêpa looks through his viewfinder, de Ayala opens her eyes, lifts her head, and looks straight at him.
As with much of de Oliveira’s recent work, The Strange Case Of Angelica is slow-paced and slight: just a wisp of a story, rendered in long stretches of near-silence alternating with stiff conversations. But like his photographer hero, de Oliveira strives to freeze moments, so he spends a few idle minutes with Trêpa in the back seat of a car, as the photographer quietly stares out at the rain-soaked city at night, all shadowy and smeary. The director also takes some time to watch the men who work the hilly vineyards as they descend with their hoes, one by one, singing a call-and-response folk song. Some scenes in The Strange Case Of Angelica look like they could’ve taken place a hundred years ago, when de Oliveira was a child and work was done more laboriously, but others are more modern, referencing the latest technology and the state of the world. Because of his age and experience, de Oliveira brings a wider perspective to everything he shoots; if he places his camera in the middle of a street, he tries to convey the way it was decades ago, not just how it is now.
That sense of timelessness extends to the story of de Ayala, who begins to haunt Trêpa after he takes her picture. She died a young bride (and reportedly a mother-to-be), with so much potential unrealized. But she lives on in Trêpa’s photographs, where she smiles and beckons. Is she calling Trêpa to the other side, or just relishing her immortality, as conferred by Trêpa’s camera? The Strange Case Of Angelica is too shaggy at times, with digressions into science and history that come out flat and awkward. But there’s a sweet, unshakeable poetry in the main idea of the film. How comforting to believe that an image can outlive us, and inspire the living to swoon.