Through its static nature, photography indulges in a nanosecond of time. An object or a person is timeless in the single moment of the camera’s shutter click. Is it possible to fall in love with a perfect yet still person, especially when they are dead? Not only dead in the continuing present, but in the moment the photograph is captured? In Manuel de Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica, Isaac is hired by a wealthy family in a town in Portugal to photograph their daughter in the immediate hours after her death. As he looks through the viewer, though, she seems to come alive and smile at him. This animation continues once he has printed the photograph.
The film purports to be about Isaac’s strange love for the dead girl, but the description is deceptive. The film instead seems to explore the stillness of life, particularly in a town that, while surrounded by modernity, is reluctant to move forward. Isaac uses an old camera with celluloid film, developing the negatives and printing the photos by hand. He is fascinated by old agricultural workers who still till the soil by hand, even though machines are taking over. The film camera remains still in almost all the scenes, allowing the scenes to move in front of it. Though in the film, there is very little movement. And while Isaac’s obsession would purport to be the main plot, it seems to get lost in strange scenes of banal conversation.
The acting was strange; the actors would take pauses before their lines as though they were looking at cues off camera for the first time. It’s hard as well to judge dialogue when reading subtitles, but if the translation was close, the dialogue was stilted and dull. And yet, I can’t say that I was bored while watching. When the camera focuses on Isaac and his strange adherence to his craft, his moments of stillness when he is photographing the remnants of the old world, the viewer is left in almost complete silence to contemplate their own views of what they see, and how they might photograph.
Isaac’s strange obsession with Angelica becomes almost incidental and seems to interrupt the story instead of being its focus. In fact, the obsession was not believable. The film should have been called ‘The Strange Case of Isaac’ and admitted its true direction, or made more of the magical properties of Isaac’s camera and kept the love affair at its centre. The moment when Isaac looks through the camera and sees the dead girl smile is so haunting and beautiful, it’s a shame that was the end of that plot device.