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Movie Review

The Strange Case of Angélica

‘Angélica’ considers a heavenly kind of love

Pilar López de Ayala, at rest, in “The Strange Case of Angélica.’’ Pilar López de Ayala, at rest, in “The Strange Case of Angélica.’’ (Cinema Guild)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / February 11, 2011

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What we can learn from a 102-year-old director is not quite the same as what we can learn from Manoel de Oliveira at 102. For instance, he is not the first filmmaker to stage a scene in the rain. But he’s one of the first to make the rain so profound that it’s like seeing it for the first time. The opening scene of “The Strange Case of Angélica,’’ his 35th feature film, is a wide night shot, in which the camera looks up a tiny street in a Portuguese town. A car pulls toward it, a man gets out, and two different conversations take place.

First you notice the sound of the rain. Then, over the course of about four minutes in a single take, you notice how the sound has separated from its purpose until it’s all become an elusive, formerly familiar event. You know the rain, but suddenly you don’t, like a word whose meaning dissipates upon repetition. With Oliveira, weather is a philosophical happening.

These sorts of heightened transformations — I’d call them divine acts — are not purely a matter of age. Before Oliveira was ancient, he was merely old, and nothing was quite what it seemed then, either. Nearly every shot in this new movie contains one glory or another. A funeral procession crawls, as far from the camera as possible, up a street like a bereaved insect. Smoke from an unseen cigarette wafts up into the frame until it’s a phantasmagoric vapor that foretells supernatural adventures. Loosely, the film is about a handsome photographer named Isaac (Ricardo Trêpa) hired to take pictures of a beautiful, casketed bride.

He hangs his prints from a line in a room he rents. Upon pulling one photo down, Isaac discovers that the starring corpse, Angélica (Pilar López de Ayala), now stands behind him as an otherworldly vision, bled of color but full of afterlife. She takes him in her arms and sails him above the clouds and beneath the stars in a kind of spectral, nearly silent movie. It’s romantic, odd, dreamy, and ever so corny. But it’s unfair to consider this moment in terms of special effects. You’re watching a man fall in love with a ghost, who appears to return his muted affection, and the effect of their mutual affection is special.

Recently, Oliveira has been uniquely obsessed with the rhapsody and surprise of demise, both natural and man-made. He’s been drawn to assorted obsessions (love, language, light) for most of his career, which really got going in the 1980s (his first film, 1942’s “Aniki Bóbó,’’ won him 20 years on a Portuguese blacklist) and has only gathered strength in the last 15 years.

Oliveira’s watchful camera and clever art direction in “Angélica’’ are full of contemplation, as is most of the table talk (recession, pollution, Armageddon) among the elder diners at Isaac’s boarding house. The movie worries about the plagues of modern life, and some of the film’s joy stems from the idea that moving on to the celestial realm is a magical liberation from earthly woe. The rest comes from the many ways one can take this movie as a physical and metaphysical allegory for filmmaking. Comfort in an afterlife frees Oliveira to have serious fun with form. One tracking shot requires Isaac to run behind a truck while taking still photographs as though he were using a Steadicam. It’s a nifty joke.

“Angélica’’ feels most like the film that argues Oliveira is this close to the beyond without ever bothering to knock first at death’s door. With him, death is a romantic opportunity. What’s the harm in kicking the bucket if it lands you in the arms of a gorgeous ghost?

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/wesley_morris.

THE STRANGE CASE OF ANGÉLICA

Written and directed by: Manoel de Oliveira

Starring: Ricardo Trêpa and Pilar López de Ayala

At: Brattle Theatre

Running time: 97 minutes

In Portuguese, with English subtitles

Unrated (comely ghosts, talk of the end of the world)

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