Film Reviews: The Strange Case of Angélica

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by Alex Carrigan 

One of the running events at VCU I am most fond of is the VCU Cinematheque, a film series sponsored by VCU Cinema. On Tuesday evenings, a non-American film is shown at the Grace Street Theater, with a discussion following the film.

One movie recently showcased by VCU Cinema is a Portuguese film from 2010 called The Strange Case of Angélica, a film from Portugal I had never seen, something I find odd considering I’ve seen other films hailing from the Iberian Peninsula this year.

The Strange Case of Angélica follows a photographer named Isaac who is asked to take a portrait of a deceased woman named Angélica. Her family has dressed her in a white gown and laid her body on a couch, and asked Isaac to photograph the young woman at three in the morning, an act that establishes the oddity of her family and helps set the gothic tone of the film. While taking her picture, he sees Angélica open her eyes and smile at him. No one else in the room notices this, but Isaac is clearly affected by it. From that point on, Isaac is a man possessed. He begins to have dreams of Angélica, sees her ghost, and also begins to display odd behavior, such as obsessively photographing laborers in a nearby field and not sitting down to eat his meals.

While watching The Strange Case of Angélica, I was curious what the movie would be about. I had a feeling it would be like the classic noir film Laura, where a detective becomes obsessed with a woman whose murder he is supposed to try and solve. Both films have a necrophiliac tone to them, but Laura eschews any magical realism for a murder mystery. Angélica‘s genre is more ambiguous.

I got a pretty good idea as to why this might be. Before the movie began, I learned that the movie was directed by Manoel de Oliveira. As the professor who spoke explained, Oliveira is probably the only living director who worked in both the silent era and the sound era of cinema. Oliveira is currently 104 years old and is still making movies, with a film currently in pre-production.

The film is framed at times much like a silent picture. The camera is very static, objects and people tend to either be in focus in the foreground or out of focus in the background, and there’s a real lucid nature to it all. There are scenes in this film heavy with dialogue, but other times it’s almost completely silent. This is also aided by the fact that there is very little soundtrack in this film. Music only plays when showing establishing shots of the city.

Of course, it’s also telling that the film goes into silent era effects. There are times when the ghost of Angélica appears, depicted in black and white to make her stand out from the colored film. Angélica is clearly green screened into most of these scenes, but a lot of the tricks involved are notably cheap. There’s a moment when Angélica appears and takes Isaac’s body, and they fly through the country. The way they fly is almost identical to a classic Superman film. The flying doesn’t look natural, as if they are on a platform that is being pushed along a conveyor belt in front of a blue or green screen. It’s cheap, but it’s kind of charming. The audience laughed a lot during the weird CGI scenes, and I feel like it was supposed to be strange. The film frames these moments as dream sequences, so it can be forgiven for looking a little kitschy.

Having seen the film, I’m not really sure what I think about it. I’m no stranger to surreal cinema (Persona by Ingmar Bergman is one of the weirdest movies ever made but it is also one of my all time favorite movies), but when I see a surreal film, I really have to question what I saw, what the director was trying to say, and what I’m supposed to take from it. The Strange Case of Angélica is a film that I probably will spend some more time thinking about. It is often best to re-watch surrealist films, leading to the discovery of additional details which help formulate new theories and ideas about the movie in question.

There is plenty to take from this movie as the film never really lays anything clear and the viewer is left to . In the discussion following the film, students noted odd elements, such as animals being present in major scenes and the nature of the beggar outside the church. No one had a real answer for any of these elements, but they all were drawn to discuss the film. I feel that’s what surrealist films should accomplish: present clues to a larger story, and ask the audience to discuss what they think is going on. I don’t have an answer for this movie, and unless I revisit the film at some later point, I’ll be left wondering if there’s some greater meaning to it all. If there isn’t, then I get to discover that as well.

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