At 101, Portuguese director gets benefit of doubt

Fri May 14, 2010 3:07am EDT
 
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By Peter Brunette

CANNES (Hollywood Reporter) - If the applause at the end of the press screening for "The Strange Case of Angelica" is any indication, critics are according the 101-year-old Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira the benefit of the doubt, as they have for decades.

There seems to be general agreement that longevity equals virtue, but this is true, in and of itself, neither in life nor in filmmaking. "Angelica" is vintage De Oliveira, and some will love it on those grounds alone, but it's a vintage that may have passed its prime. As an art film of the purest, most hothouse variety, the prospect of theatrical sales seems limited, though it may do better in secondary markets.

Isaac is a young Jewish photographer in what appears to be contemporary Portugal (though his camera and much else about him are flagrantly pre-digital). One night he is hauled out of his boarding house to photograph the recently deceased daughter of a local grande dame. While taking the photographs, Isaac is startled by the fact that the beautiful, smiling Angelica appears to be fully alive, though, alas, only to him.

His obsession with Angelica grows as he continues his artistic inclination to take pictures of workmen who labor in the old-fashioned ways, much to the dismay of his upwardly mobile landlady who thinks he should be tackling worthier subjects. Angelica's ghostly apparition finally appears to him one night after much tossing and turning, and off they go sailing through the clouds.

All of recent De Oliveira is here: the static long takes with purposely stiff acting and artificial dialogue; the ultra-dry, almost arid, humor; the superb cinematography and impeccable mise-en-scene; the subtle attacks on the stuffy bourgeoisie; the preoccupation with the poetic imagination; and so on. In this film, all is pleasantly leavened with a gorgeous and ethereal piano score. There's even a self-reflexive aspect, because of course the aesthetic-minded photographer also stands in for the filmmaker himself.

And De Oliveira's calculations are easy to follow, as he usually provides an extended, self-conscious section of dialogue that spells out the philosophical underpinnings of his characters' actions. Thus the elderly engineers who also live at Isaac's boarding house opine about the nature of matter and spirit, the "seven mosquitoes of the Apocalypse," and other semi-intellectual, semi-jocular subjects.

But the rather thin themes tend to be repeated rather than developed. Perhaps the funniest scene in the film is a tiny moment in which a cat hungrily eyes a caged bird until he hears a barking dog, which distracts him, since he has suddenly become the potential prey. Whether this delicious bit was planned or mere luck is hard to say.

The only thing that's missing in this ultra-formalist exercise, despite the apparent interest in the untutored workmen and the ultra-droll jokes, is any sense of real, breathing life. The poet/photographer/filmmaker, we learn, can only obtain genuine happiness in the transcendent world of the imagination. Alas, few of us still alive can ever hope to live at that address.

 
<p>Director Manoel De Oliveira holds a news conference for the film "O estranho caso de Angelica" at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival, May 13, 2010. REUTERS/Yves Herman</p>