Review: “The Strange Case of Angelica.”

The Strange Case of Angelica has the patient, methodical pace one would expect from a director who has been around for over a century. Portuguese writer/director Manoel de Oliveira tells a meditative ghost story, one where feelings of romance persist beyond the grave, but the movie’s glacial pace eliminates any sense of suspense or lust. Such an approach is by design; de Oliveira uses long takes – really long takes – to communicate the depth of feeling his hero possesses. The technique is sometimes maddening, yet it consistently inspires worthwhile thoughtfulness.

Isaac (Ricardo Trêpa) is a photographer in a small Portugal town. When the daughter of a wealthy townsperson dies, Isaac is called upon to photograph her one last time. Her name is Angelica (Pilar López de Ayala), and she looks downright heavenly as her body rests on a couch. Isaac begins his work, and soon the damndest thing happens: as he centers the viewfinder on Angelica’s face, she opens her eyes and smiles at him. Taken aback, Isaac says nothing to her family, and the aberrations continue even after Isaac develops the film. He tries to forget about her – another photography project, where he shoots the labors of local farmers, proves a temporary distraction – but soon she dominates his thoughts. He’s fallen in love with a ghost, and her spirit seems to reciprocate.

As with similar stories, The Strange Case of Angelica is at its most engaging when it deals with the supernatural. Without abrupt scares or disturbing content, de Oliveira’s style is far more ethereal. Angelica’s ghost floats through the frame, sometimes carrying Isaac’s spirit with her, and their pale blue bodies are quietly magical. The otherworldly trysts have a strong effect on Isaac, as they inspire him to quote mythical poetry and remain broodingly romantic.  Still, other scenes lack the sense of wonder and feel like a deliberate test of patience. It takes more than twenty minutes, for example, for Isaac to reach Angelica’s former home; shots of him driving through the rain are lengthy and without dialogue. Other subplots, such as a tedious discussion amongst locals about a bridge, are meant to highlight Isaac’s increased disengagement from the day-to-day world. De Oliveira reaches this point by forcing the audience, like Isaac, to grow bored with their barely-tolerable chatter. It’s an effective trick, one that few directors would have the gall to try, and entertainment value never interrupts the purity of his vision.

When I was in high school, I’d drive to Baltimore on weekends to see movies at The Charles Theater. Before the feature began, there’d be an anti-smoking ad in which John Waters would half-jokingly ask, “How can anyone make it through a film, especially a European film, and not have a cigarette?” The ad may be decades old, but The Strange Case of Angelica is the exact type of movie Waters describes. The soundtrack consists of nothing but Chopin, the dialogue develops characters in an obtuse way, and the story unfolds with little explanation of what motivates them. There is a message about how binding obsession transcends death, and it’s handled with unusual thoughtfulness and precision. The movie’s challenges nearly overwhelm its rewards, yet the implicat