One aspect of the recent films of Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira I get the biggest charge from is their discursiveness. The nearly 102-year-old filmmaker has been working at near-Fassbinder levels of productivity since about the turn of the century (and wasn't exactly slouching in the '90s and '80s), and I haven't been able to keep up entirely, but I always enjoy the loose expansiveness he applies to the forms of even his shortest features (and two of my favorites, 2006's Belle Toujours, a droll and unexpectedly delightful homage to Buñuel, and 2009's shaggy-dog romance Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl, each clocked in somewhere under 80 minutes each). The narratives, such as they are, are generally crisp, clear, cogent, albeit sometimes on the slight side (as if I ever cared about that sort of thing, right?); but while the courses of his films of the past few years never jar the viewer right off of their paths, the journey from beginning to end is gracefully strewn with engaging side trips, as it were. They're often in the form of ostensibly "off-topic" conversations, as in the observations on modern manners in Belle Toujours or the bits involving the nature of the male protagonist's business dealings in Eccentricities. One of the most charming such bits in Oliveira's latest picture, The Strange Case of Angelica, involves a conversation about anti-matter during a breakfast scene in a little Régua pension where Isaac, the picture's ostensible hero, lives. The fellow hasn't even come down from his room yet, and two older gentlemen and the pension's keeper and two elderly gentlemen discuss the nature of the universe.
As for the young man Isaac (Ricardo Trêpa), his universe is mutating, thanks to his potential discovery of, as he says to himself, "that place of absolute love I've heard about...which banishes all the anguish I feel." Said love residing, as it happens, with a recently dead young woman whom Isaac was roused from his bed to document in her beauteous unanimated state. Except that through his viewfinder, as he snapped away at her placid visage, she seemed to smile at him. And now, as he looks at the photographs of her that he's hung to dry, her face again comes to life, and smiles at him. And her black-and-white ghost comes to his balcony, and takes him flying over the Tagus river by night. Isaac is a Sephardic Jew, something of a stranger in this land—although the film doesn't place too much emphasis on that. The family of Isaac's new love Angelica (Pilar López de Ayala) is old, and rich, and Catholic, and their maid looks at Isaac with a gimlet, to say the least, eye. Will these obstacles—not to mention the fact that Angelica has, you know, joined the choir invisible and all—keep the lovers apart? As you might expect, it's not so much the question's answer that's of interest as the getting to it, and the peculiar juxtapositions Oliviera throws in along with his discourses—Isaac's photographic fascination with some manual laborers who, in his photos, come off like garden-implement-wielding killers out of early '60s Hammer films—keep the atmosphere engaging, intoxicating. The special effects are attractive but also have an old-school feel that keeps you in the continuity of Melies, Feiullade, and finally Franju; indeed, Angelica often struck me as a differently-hued variation on Philippe Garrel's 2008 ghost/amour fou story La frontiere de l'aube, which also wears its stylistic debt to those filmmakers with stolid, trend-resistant pride. Angelica is not necessarily "lighter" than Garrel's film, but it is a bit cozier. And, like Garrel's vision, it is not in the least bit coy about being its own strange thing. I've taken the quote from Rossellini about Chaplin's A King In New York out of my bag quite a few times, and I'm going to do it again, because it completely applies here: "It is the film of a free man."