Night Flight

Manoel de Oliveira's Strange Case of Angelica is a whimsical romance set in, and above, the vineyards of northern Portugal

By / April 2012

On a rainy night in Regua, a hilly town in northern Portugal known for its port wine, a photographer is summoned to the house of a wealthy Catholic family to take a final portrait of their deceased daughter, Angelica.

Isaac, the photographer, is a listless misanthrope with a ravenous romantic streak. Call him Fernando Pessoa with a camera. He has been sitting up nights in a boarding house along the banks of the Douro river pondering the poems of Jose Regio: Dance! O stars, that in constant dizzying heights you follow unchanging. His table is a mess of half-read books and cigarette butts, telltale signs of an artist attempting, to no avail, to conjure the proverbial creative spark.

A corpse awaiting burial seems hardly a better bet, but Angelica (Pilar Lopez de Ayala), she is no typical cadaver. She wears a wedding gown, clutches a bouquet of lilies. Lying on the settee in the family’s cavernous sitting room, she glows with the euphoric light of a pre-Raphaelite painting.

When Isaac (Ricardo Trepa) places his eye to the viewfinder and Angelica opens her eyes and smiles for him (and only for him), we are both startled and assured — startled by the intensity of the dead woman’s delight, assured by filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira’s willingness to risk sentimentality to explore the ineffable, in this case the power of otherworldly love.

Perhaps age is the ultimate distiller of craft. Oliveira was born in 1906. Since the mid-1980s he has made roughly a film a year, a yield that suggests a man in a footrace with time.

And yet “The Strange Case of Angelica” feels neither clipped nor perfunctory. The scenes smolder rather than rage. Many are shot from a single angle, a technique that lends to the film the tranquility of a framed thing, a picture, painting, window swung wide. We find our eyes scouring the screen for minute detail, the Douro lazing in the background, Angelica smiling in a snapshot hung up to dry.

As Angelica’s hold on Isaac tightens, a headlock of the heart that results in creative breakthroughs and emotional upheaval, Oliveira’s reigns on the camera loosen. In one sublime and childishly imaginative dream sequence, a sequence with the capacity to warm the coldest skeptic back towards world cinema, we float with the couple through the dark blue night, over Regua’s terraced vineyards, down the Douro, and into the light of stars.

Romance, as in the paintings of Marc Chagall, has become a kind of levitation, a narrow portal into another stratosphere. The only bummer about Oliveira’s flight of fancy is that we ever have to come down.


Drew Bratcher is the editor of EthnoTraveler.