This week in movies you missed: A 102-year-old director makes a film that, unsurprisingly, seems adrift in time.
What You Missed
According to IMDB, The Strange Case of Angélica is the 56th film helmed by Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira since 1931. That's right: He's been making movies longer than most of us have been alive. Longer than many of our parents and even grandparents have been alive. He remembers when the great silent films were new releases.
This film, which Oliveira also wrote, has a simple plot. On a rainy night in a small city, a servant from the local mansion goes looking for a photographer. The daughter of the family, Angélica, has just died, and her mother wants to memorialize her. (The fact that she needs a photographer to accomplish this sets the film firmly in the past, though the era isn't specified.)
The photo shop owner is out of town, so a young freelancer named Isaac (Ricardo Trêpa), who stands out as a Sephardic Jew in Catholic Portugal, accepts the job. At the mansion, he finds the stunningly beautiful, faintly smiling Angélica (Pilar López de Ayala) laid out on a bed in her white wedding gown (she was recently married). As Isaac stares at her through the viewfinder, she seems to open her eyes and beam at him. But when he looks again, she's still dead. Isaac, a romantic artist straight out of a 19th-century novel, promptly becomes obsessed with the angelic Angélica. Soon he's hallucinating (or is he?) her glowing apparition in his room.
Why You Missed It
Angélica screened at Cannes but never played in Vermont. Considering its slow pacing and its niche appeal to those who love pictorial cinema, that's no surprise. You won't get to see this type of film on a big screen unless you live in NYC, Chicago or L.A., or near a college film series.
Should You Keep Missing It?
That depends, again, on your feelings about pictorial cinema, and your willingness to try something that is not cut like a modern movie. I'm glad I saw Angélica. I don't want to see it again. But I would like to blow up some of the shots and hang them on my wall.
When I see a film like this, I understand what true cinephiles mean when they go on about shot composition. Oliveira relies on long, static takes — his camera seldom moves. But he shows us so much in each one. Take the scene in front of a bird cage in Isaac's rooming house. After Isaac and his landlady have some dialogue, they leave the frame, which includes the bird cage, a window and a cat who sits on the floor switching its tail, focused on the bird. The camera just sits there for a bit. A dog barks outside; the cat turns its head, then goes back to watching the bird. This scene would be intolerable if the shot didn't look like a richly colored Renaissance painting of a domestic interior. Somehow it works, and so does the long scene where Isaac shoots some laborers working the fields (with deep-focus views of the town in the background).
In one of the DVD extras, Oliveira presents his view of the cinema — he actually reads from a written statement. We learn that, to him, virtually all contemporary cinema is soulless, violent and pornographic. The only filmmakers he respects are those who believe "private" behavior doesn't belong in public, and the only still-working director he cites is Iranian Abbas Kiarostami (of Certified Copy). In short, he sounds like my grandpa.
But, hey, the dude is 102. He's practically a time traveler. He's earned the right to dismiss the entire modern era and continue to do things his way. And, no doubt, there are young filmmakers and cinéastes who agree with him.
Verdict: I remain a devotee of fast-paced, sensory-overload screen entertainment, at least when it's Drive or "Breaking Bad" (sorry, can't stop thinking about the season finale this Sunday). But Angélica was a welcome change of pace.
Other new releases you may have missed:
- "The Pee-Wee Herman Show on Broadway" (Pee Wee returns to the Playhouse, this time on stage.)
- The High Cost of Living (Zach Braff. Romance. And tragedy, it sounds like.)
- Nostalgia for the Light (This doc is about a Chilean desert that's both a graveyard full of prehistoric remains and a prime spot for astronomers to see the stars.)
- Submarine (A teen comes of age in England. A.V. Club says it's the film Youth in Revolt should have been.)
- Prohibition (the Ken Burns series)
- Buck (doc about an inspirational horse trainer)
- "Bored to Death," season 2
- "In Treatment," season 3