The lens of a camera is a powerful tool. Able to warp reality itself, film presents an inherently subjective view of whatever it captures, using the eye of its director to breathe new, immortal life into the images it records. With 'The Strange Case of Angelica' that power takes on a rather literal quality, when a beautiful but quite dead woman seemingly reanimates through the viewfinder of a camera. Directed by 102 year old Portuguese filmmaker, Manoel de Oliveira, the movie is a contemplative mixture of magic and reality, that while an admirable effort on many levels, unfortunately meanders both contextually and thematically, never fully coming together to form a meaningful whole.
The story centers on Isaac (Ricardo Trepa), a photographer who is called out in the dead of night to take pictures of a recently deceased young woman named Angelica (Pilar Lopez de Ayala). Dressed in white with a sweet, mysterious smile across her face, Angelica looks rather radiant for a dead woman, and Isaac is instantly caught by her tranquil beauty. When he looks through the viewfinder of his camera, Angelica's eyes momentarily open and her otherworldly smile seems to motion directly toward the bemused photographer. Unsure what to make of the strange occurrence, Isaac returns home, but soon visions of Angelica start to flood his dreams and waking hours, both haunting and enticing him. What follows is a visually interesting, artfully composed, but emotionally limp supernatural love story, that features some intriguing images but slim plotting.
Oliveira employs a slow, reflective visual style that enhances the mood and tone of the story. Many sequences are shot in wide, motionless masters that simply and effectively frame everything that needs to be seen in a beautiful, painterly manner. The director also makes good use of the various spatial planes of his shots, balancing the images with blocking and staging throughout the foreground, midground, and background. The long takes give the scenes time to breath and develop without unnecessary manipulation, creating a kind of suspension of time that is both dreamy and naturalistic. Though mostly quiet, some serene classical piano melodies are gently played over a few scenes, particularly during transitional sequences that all help to move the film along and complement its mostly somber mood.
Unfortunately, despite some artful filmmaking choices, thoughtful compositions, and a promising set up, the film never really follows through with the promise of its early images. Though he is in almost every scene, we never really get much of a sense for Isaac, and indeed he remains just as elusive and enigmatic to the viewer as he does to the other characters in the film. This seems at least partially intentional, but it makes it hard to actually care about his journey. This brings us to the film's main shortcoming -- the actual journey itself. Scene after scene of Isaac in internal, existential crisis over the ghostly woman who preoccupies his thoughts pile upon one another, mixed in with occasional philosophical musings by other characters, and an overall examination of man's relationship to the material and industrial world. It may sound like a lot of potentially deep material, but none of it really adds up to much. The plot just sort of meanders, and while an emphasis on mood and tone over narrative can be a perfectly valid choice, the film's atmosphere of eerie obsession starts to wear thin early on, and its stylistic form can't make up for a lack of compelling content. There also seems to be a direct commentary on the actual power of cinema and recorded images themselves, but this metaphorical parallel is a little underdeveloped and disappointingly weak. The movie's treatment of the supernatural also waivers between magical and silly. Though there is a humorous undercurrent throughout the proceedings, and these scenes are meant to deliberately echo the aesthetics of silent cinema, some of the dream sequences and ethereal visitations might come across as a bit too comical.
'The Strange Case of Angelica' is an interesting but unfocused examination of love, the spiritual world, and in a way, cinema itself. As pointed out in the included audio commentary, Oliveira seems heavily influenced by the likes of Jean Cocteau's 'Orpheus,' and the various works of Jean Vigo and Robert Bresson, all filmmakers that I am very familiar with and greatly admire. Disappointingly though, the movie falls short of reaching those same magical heights, and its wandering plot and uninteresting protagonist ultimately lead to an unsatisfying experience. There are some thought provoking ideas at work here, but it all feels a little incomplete and not fully realized. Stylistically, there is a lot to like, and while certainly worth a look, as a whole the film never really achieves the meaningful or profound impact that its images and scenarios aspire toward.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Cinema Guild presents 'The Strange Case of Angelica' on a BD-50 disc housed in a standard case. After some logos and warnings the disc transitions to a standard menu. A four page booklet featuring an essay titled "Late Oliveira" written by Hayden Guest is also included in the package. The release is region A, B, and C compatible.
The film is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer. Though the packaging indicates a 1.85:1 aspect ratio the image is actually pillarboxed with small black bars on the top, bottom, and sides of the frame which seem to indicate a possible 1.78:1 or even 1.66:1 aspect ratio (which is apparently its OAR). Though mostly pleasing, there are a few minor issues with the transfer.
The print is in great shape with no real signs of damage and there is a light layer of grain visible throughout. Clarity is pretty good allowing the viewer to make out the exquisite detail of Oliveira's painterly compositions and long, layered takes. With that said, some scenes do have a fairly soft look that complements the ethereal tone of the story. The color palette favors subdued hues that evoke a bygone era, but there are bursts of more radiant colors, particularly on shots of Angelica herself. The real issue with the transfer is its sometimes elevated black levels that can present a washed out appearance. Whites bring decent intensity, but again, overall contrast is a little on the low side.
Oliveira's compositions and images can be impressive, but the transfer's intermittently elevated blacks lead to a slightly faded look. Even so, as a whole the video appears to respectfully translate the intended look of the film and the resulting images serve the story just fine.
The movie is provided with a Portuguese DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 track, along with optional English subtitles. Being a comparatively quiet film, this is a very average but still effective mix.
Dialogue is full and clean and there are no crackles or pops. The track isn't very lively, but there are bits of deliberate ambiance that help to bolster the visuals and mood. Ticking clocks, falling rain, clicking cameras, ringing bells, and working laborers all add subtle levels of aural interest to the audio, though rear activity remains pretty sparse throughout. Dynamic range is a little flat and bass activity is mostly absent, save for a few isolated instances of more aggressive, harsh, mechanical sounds. All of the different auditory elements are balanced well and speech is always easy to make out.
This is a pretty subdued audio mix and while a bit more rear activity would have helped to increase the immersion of the ambient effects, the track is certainly serviceable.
Cinema Guild has put together a nice set of supplements, including a commentary, a silent film from the director, and a documentary. All of the special features are provided with Portuguese Dolby Digital 2.0 sound and English subtitles.
'The Strange Case of Angelica' is a visually artful but ultimately unsatisfying experience. Though there is a lot to admire about the director's style, the narrative and its images never quite hold the impact that they strive for. Video and audio are both respectful but unimpressive. Supplements are pretty insightful, rounding out a nice disc for a flawed but still worthwhile film.