De Oliveira’s Angélica a metaphysical love story
by Vitor Pinto
This year, Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar presents a line-up of appealing titles by both young and established directors, from Xavier Dolan and Agnès Kocsis to Jean-Luc Godard and Manoel de Oliveira, who opened the programme today. At 101, the world’s oldest director seems determined not to stop and The Strange Case of Angélica [+see also:
film profile] is there to prove it.
After adapting a short story by Eça de Queiroz, Eccentricities of a Blond-Haired Girl [+see also:
film profile] (which premiered in Berlin in 2009), Oliveira this time decided to take a journey down memory lane for a story whose first draft he wrote back in 1952. Set in the city of Régua – in the region of Douro, where Oliveira lays most of his plots – Angélica centres on Isaac (Ricardo Trepa), a young photographer who is unexpectedly asked by a wealthy family to photograph their daughter, Angélica (Pilar Lopez de Ayala).
The photo session is rather peculiar though, as Angélica has just died. During the session, observed by a mourning family and neighbours, Angélica seems to smile to Isaac, which is the starting point for a strange obsession that will ultimately led the young Jewish photographer to perdition.
What was meant to be a strange commissioned work turned into an aesthetic experience that opened the door to a new dimension. Flirting with the idea of death, Oliveira depicts a metaphysical kind of love as he turns Trepa’s character into a romantic anti-hero (totally misunderstood by his neighbours) and Lopez de Ayala into one of the most beautiful corpses ever filmed. Working for the first time with Oliveira, the Spanish actress has a silent yet strong presence throughout the entire film, spreading her fascination over Trepa’s character even when she is not visually present. The introduction of fantastic imagery and scenes of flying ghosts – rather unexpected coming from Oliviera – would probably please Tim Burton, too bad Angélica isn’t competing for the Palm d’Or.
However, the character-driven Angélica reaches its most appealing point not in the development of the metaphysical love of this unexpected couple but in the way Oliveira pays tribute to Douro. Régua is filmed as a region in transformation, where tradition and modernity crash and where a Jewish character interferes in a traditionally Catholic canvas. Isaac is fascinated by the traditional techniques of working the land and decides to photograph the work of the locals. These pictures are later placed near the ones of Angélica’s corpse, standing as metaphor for the inevitable death of a time.
Throughout, the film’s atmosphere is bucolic, potentially tragic and Oliveira, in his irony, does not hesitate to use music to underscore these dimensions. From the opening scene – a night shot of Régua’s landscape – we hear renowned pianist Maria João Pires playing Chopin. As the plot unfolds, Chopin resides alongside traditional songs, whose lyrics work as a premonition of the love story. In one key scene, Isaac faints in a field of olive trees (Oliveira means “olive tree” in Portuguese) and a group of passing children sing a folk chant which ends with “Take me near my love”.
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