NYFF 2010: THE STRANGE CASE OF ANGELICA Review

You probably already know that Twitch's tagline is "Spreading the News On Strange Little Films From Around the World" so it is without apology that I report that Manoel de Oliveira's latest is one of the strangest little films and littlest strange films I've seen in quite a while. 


Moreover, its strangeness, despite the title, does not derive so much from its subject matter but from its deadpan insistence on its own littleness. Recalling the shrinking of the moon down to a pocket-sized bauble in Despicable Me, The Strange Case of Angelica feels like a part-whimsical, part-magic-realist feature film that has been abridged to a short--then blown up again to 90 minutes. In the process we seem to have lost certain kinds of details, making this mildly supernatural allegory both pared down and quirkily meandering. 


Telling the tale of an old-fashioned photographer (meta-commentary alert!) who becomes obsessed with the recently departed title character, the film doesn't come across as minimalist as much as miniaturized--not a statement of "less is more" but a rhetorical question asking, "What else could there possibly be anyway?" Each scene is shot in an exceedingly straightforward way with a static camera and a plainly diagrammatic approach to mise-en-scène that creates the odd sensation of our having stepped inside a film discovered in an attic trunk somewhere. Sure, there are some amusing, even disarming, touches here and there, but when push comes to shove, Oliveira seems to value a stance of philosophical coolness over any overt attempt to be charming:  it's as if Fritz Lang had directed a Maurice Sendak picture book. Our enjoyment, when it comes, is not from immersion in the narrative material but from our calm appraisal of it, much like we'd admire a nineteenth century volume of woodcut engravings.  


I don't think Oliveira intends for us to have these kinds of associations, however. His compositions are far too painterly, especially with their Old Masters approach to using light sources for symbolic effect. Sometimes this achieves wonderful results, as when the photographer (Ricardo Trêpa) first encounters the dead Angelica (Pilar López de Ayala) and she is presented as the brightest, most lively element in the shot, her grieving relatives outlined like shadowy wraiths in the background. This scene, and others like it, might be haunting (double meaning intended) except that they're often presented with a flatness that's not just intentional, but exaggerated. In this way, the film unfolds cinematically like a series of understated still-lifes, mourning tableaux, and Courbet-like peasants-working-the-fields canvases hung on a gallery wall; our job, apparently, is to nod and murmur something appreciative or at least polite about each one of them before moving down the line. And yes, I'm aware that this is the third time I've compared The Strange Case of Angelica to work in other media, but that's the kind of film it is:  as if, with the exception of Oliveira's own eight-decade long oeuvre, its antecedents lie in other cultural touchstones, not film, and certainly not in anything in the horror or paranormal romance genres. 


When we're done with the exhibition we're sure to feel warmly for certain sequences, certain shots, but we can't help noticing that the overall goal of creating an otherworldly atmosphere has been consistently undercut by the truly lame computer process shots. These boast a sub-Blue's Clues interactivity between the lead and his spectral love interest that is believable not even for a single second. Some audiences may feel that the playful imagery that envelops these characters, and the gauzy aura that surrounds Angelica, is modestly enchanting. To me all the shots of Angelica-as-ghost are far too slick and precise, while their origins in post-production tech are too crudely obvious. With its long takes, piano-only score, and mannered acting, The Strange Case of Angelica seems like a contemporary silent film--the sudden presence of intertitles would not at all be shocking. But that's not the problem with the film; that's one of the things that makes it interesting. The problem is that the real masters of silent film, Lang in Destiny and Murnau in Faust, for example, knew how to use special effects and optical processes to create imagery that really did feel transporting and magical. Oliveira, by contrast, gives one the impression of an artist who has found some new toys to play with but hasn't quite mastered them yet.   
 

Sun Oct 3: 9:00pm (ATH) Ticket Info >>
Wed Oct 6: 6:00pm (ATH) Ticket Info >>

http://www.filmlinc.com/nyff/2010/the-strange-case-of-angelica-o-estranho-caso-de-angelica] 
 

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