Manoel de Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica, directed at the age of 102, overwhelmed me. The subject and the poetic treatment of this surrealist film contribute to make a lasting impression on the viewer.
Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira had been a living legend of cinema until he passed away on April 2nd 2015 at the age of 106. He began his career as a silent film actor and later moved on to direction. He faced a lot of hurdles as a filmmaker due to the displeasure of the Salazar dictatorship (reign of António de Oliveira Salazar, the Prime Minister of Portugal who was virtually a dictator). His career really took off after the revolution of the 70’s. He has given us splendid films like Doomed Love(1978), The Satin Slipper(1985), Voyage to the Beginning of the World(1997) and others. Beyond 100 years of age this man had entirely disregarded the limitations of age and continued directing quality films. His 2010 film The Strange Case of Angelica, directed at the age of 102, overwhelmed me. The subject and the poetic treatment of this surrealist film contribute to make a lasting impression on the viewer.
The film starts on a rainy night. Isaac, a photographer, is called on that night to take photos of the corpse of a young woman(Angelica) who belonged to a very wealthy family owning the Portas estate. The family consisting of her parents, elder sister, who is a nun and her husband are very grieved at this loss. Her dead face has retained a smile and she seems as if sleeping. When Isaac looks at her through the camera lens, to his surprise, Angelica comes alive and smiles at him. He quickly realizes that he is the only person who has observed this supernatural phenomenon.
He takes a few photos and leaves, but is unable to drive the thoughts of Angelica from his mind. As the days pass he is visited by the spirit of Angelica in his dreams. She appears at his apartment window and takes his dream self with her. They fly together in absolute silence to a place of pure love. His obsession for her grows with each passing day. As a consequence, he starts to negate the surrounding material world. Madam Justina, the motherly landlady in Isaac’s apartment expresses concern for Isaac to her neighbors. She feels that he is not in the right state of mind as well as health. Isaac’s longing for Angelica makes him ill and bedridden. Towards the end, Isaac sees Angelica’s spirit standing in the balcony just like his dreams. He tries to reach her but is unable to do so bodily. We witness that his spirit leaves the body, unites with Angelica and they fly away together. The landlady grieves Isaac’s death and remarks that she had seen it coming.
Simple as it may seem, there is a lot to ponder over this film. To understand the film, we need to take a closer look into the point of view Isaac. We never get much information about his background. Towards the beginning, we are informed that he had been previously in the oil business and is a Sephardi emigrant; in other words, a Portuguese Jew. The portrayal of Isaac tells us that he is a poetic soul who belongs entirely to a different age. In a conversation with the landlady, he expresses his interest in photographing certain laborers who are digging the ground nearby. Madam Justina remarks that they are working in the old fashioned way. Nowadays everything is done by machines. Isaac tells her that this old fashioned way of working is what interests him.
From this conversation, it seems that Isaac finds a sense of belonging with things which have an old world charm. The practical and materialist people around him, who talk of economic crisis, the marvels of modern physics etc. fail to understand him. In this sense he is an outsider, a person with a longing he does not understand himself. However, the events that occur since the time he photographs the corpse of Angelica, channelizes this longing towards her. In this frame of mind, he finds resonance in the companionship of Angelica in his dreams and in the place of absolute love which he calls a strange reality.
Gradually the real world becomes immaterial to him. The stark contrast between the two realities is demonstrated by the grotesque noise of the truck passing his window each morning. This acts as a motif for the material world, as opposed to the peaceful silence of his dream world.
In a brilliant dream sequence Isaac sees the pet bird of Madam Justina flowing out of his window and Angelica floating above his bed with her arms extended, in such a manner that they are unable to reach each other.
When he wakes up and finds that the pet bird has died in its cage, he interprets it as a message sent to him by Angelica. This sends him to a frenzied state in which he rushes towards Angelica’s grave, calling out her name. It exhausts him and causes his collapse. He becomes bedridden and is finally united with Angelica through death. Together they soar away, far beyond the clutches of the imperfect material world.
There is one scene in the movie where the people in the drawing room of Isaac’s apartment discuss physics. They talk about particle colliders and the nature of antimatter. One of them comments that the collision between matter and antimatter results in pure essence. This comment can be thought of as a metaphor for the union of Isaac and Angelica. The film ends with a song of the laborers, the same one that Isaac was fond of photographing. This acts as a befitting requiem to Isaac, since it signifies his nostalgia for the old world.
The character of Isaac can also be thought of as a reflection of the director himself. Oliveira being as old as cinema itself is a man outliving his own time. He shoots Isaac’s dream sequences in black and white, without any sound, thereby paying homage to the silent cinema of his youth.
Now the question arises, whether the supernatural events in the story are real, or imaginings of Isaac. The film is open to both interpretations. However in both the cases, one aspect can be found in common. The immense longing of Isaac for Angelica, someone he saw only after her death cannot be justified through common reasoning. This longing is in fact the representation of a poetic sentiment known as saudad’. Saudade is a Portuguese word, with probably Celtic roots on one hand, Arabic and Berber on the other. It signifies nostalgia for something one has never had. Saudade was a characteristic of the earliest Portuguese folk poetry and has been cultivated by sophisticated writers of later generations. In the late 19th century António Nor and Teixeira de Pascoais were foremost of a growing cult of ,saudosismo.
Isaac being a tad out of place with the present time was sort of a loner. He created a realm of existence for himself which was secluded from the surrounding world. He harbored a strong yearning for true love of a kind that would resonate with his mode of existence, yet could not define his longing in exact terms. This emotion clearly resembles saudade-Angelica somehow becomes the personification of this saudade for Isaac. Hence, it makes no difference whether the spirit of Angelica he witnessed was real or a figment of his imagination. Both interpretations serve the same purpose.
Oliveira had originally planned to make this film in the 50’s, but was unable to embark upon the project back then. When he revisited the script, he updated it with modern elements aligning it more with the present. In my opinion, the subject matter of this film is more relevant in the current context than it would have been 60 years ago. The fact that this film has been directed by a seasoned Oliveria, who has been enriched by his experiences over a period of several years, has seen the beginning of a new millennium; imparts a greater significance to it.
Acknowledgements and References:
Ken Bullock – For highlighting the perspective of ‘saudade’ in this film, acquainting me with the word, its etymology, meaning and filling me on Oliveira’s background
(All pictures used in this article are courtesy the Internet)
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