A blessedly crisp, ready-made metaphor for film's power to immortalize, Manoel de Oliveira's film for 2010-he's been working at a relentless, Woody Allen-style clip since 1979-The Strange Case of Anjelica examines the short life and times of Isaac (Ricardo Trepa), a Portuguese-Jewish photographer. Brought in to photograph the recently deceased Anjelica (Pilar López de Ayala), Isaac's subject seems to come to life through his camera's eye. Genial, dryly funny and avoiding any hint of special pleading for an aging master, Anjelica is as enjoyable as its commercial prospects are minimal.
Anjelica begins tentatively, with a fruitless quest for a photographer who's not at home: it's a wet night and the newly dead young girl needs to be embalmed on film. The services of the amateur photographer are enlisted. Arriving at the manor, Isaac has his first of many bafflingly rude encounters with the domestics of the aloof Portas estate. Entering a room where relatives sit in quiet mourning with creepy poise, he begins taking the death portrait, only to be understandably alarmed when the corpse smiles for him. As Isaac dreams his visions of Anjelica grow more and more surreal. Gossiping, pontificating lodgers and the much-repeated walk from the lodge to the estate break up the dramatic action.
Preservation is very much on de Oliveira's mind; the Jewish protagonist (his provenance noted with something like unconscious, nonchalant anti-Semitism) is correctly concerned about capturing the archaic and endangered. When he's not tinkering with radios or dreaming of Anjelica, Isaac ventures out to capture the harvest, done with hoes and song and nothing more. In the film's best sequence, Isaac simply stands and observes the men at work; meanwhile his landlady protests that he's wasting his time.
As ever, de Oliveira remains a specialized taste: his trademark presentation of people speaking at great length about the state of the European nations (and, here, quantum physics) may be a dealbreaker for some. But Anjelica is gleeful in its presentation and affectionate (rather than self-righteous) in its use of primitive special effects. It's very much a movie commemorating the end of film stock as we know it, and de Oliveira feels fine.
Distributor: Cinema Guild
Cast: Ricardo Trepa, Pilar López de Ayala, Filipe Vargas, Leonor Silveira and Ana Maria Magalhães
Director/Screenwriters: Manoel de Oliveira
Producers: François d'Artemare, Renata de Almeida, Maria João Mayer, Luis Miñarro
Genre: Comedy/Drama/Romance; Portuguese-language, subtitled
Running time: 97 min
Release date: December 29 NY