A Kind of Levitation

On three contemporary foreign films

By / June 2019

The Strange Case of Angelica 
directed by Manoel de Oliviera

Police, Adjective 
directed by Corneliu Porumboiu

The Fast Runner 
directed by Zacharias Kunuk


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 surer 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 Oliviera’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. Oliviera was born in 1906. From the mid-1980s until his death in 2015, he made roughly a film a year, a yield that suggested 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, a window swung wide. We find our eyes scouring the screen for minute detail, the Douro lazing in the background, Angelica grinning 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, Oliviera’s reign on the camera loosens.

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 Oliviera’s flight of fancy is that we ever have to come down.


Dragos Bucur plays the detective Cristi in “Police, Adjective.”

“Police, Adjective,” the 2009 film from Corneliu Porumboiu, wraps where many a police procedural revs the engine, with a cop in front of a chalkboard, briefing his backup on the logistics of a sting. Squealing tires should follow, semiautomatics lifted from holsters, leather boots falling on deadlocked doors.

Instead we get a conveyor belt of credits and an earful of tinny Romanian pop. We will not be present for the shakedown, will never know whether the suspect, a lethargic teenager with a joint at the ready, is in fact a drug trafficker or merely a hoodlum hellbent on getting his buddies high.

Is Porumboiu cheating us? Give up two hours of our lives and we expect finality, want the padlock click of a period rather than the cracked gate of another question mark. But the climax of “Police, Adjective,” when we consider the cop in command of the chalk, is as conclusive as any arrest or acquittal.

His name is Cristi (Dragos Bukur). He is a rookie detective, has an afternoon shadow. With occasional breaks for football tennis (a game played exactly how it sounds), he has been tailing the accused through the boxy streets of Brasov, a midsize Romanian city surrounded by the Southern Carpathian Mountains.

The case has taken a toll on Cristi. He hasn’t changed pullovers in days. His conversations with his new wife are late night loopy. In one, the couple spars over a ballad by the Romanian chanteuse Mirabela Dauer.

“Anca, this song doesn’t make any sense,” Cristi says. “What would the field be without the flower? What would the sea be without the sun?” What else would it be? It would still be the field and the sea.”

Anca (Irina Saulescu), a teacher at the local school with a knack for catching misspellings in Cristi’s police reports, says she hasn’t given the lyrics much thought, then upbraids her husband for failing to appreciate their beauty.

In this comical exchange and a half-dozen others, Cristia’s intuition, his animal sense about what it good and sensible, comes under scrutiny. His definition of conscience doesn’t square with the dictionary. His ideas about justice clash with the lex terri. He has enough evidence to charge the teenager with possession. Instead he embarks on a course of creative stalling, convinced that Romanian drug laws are unfair and out of date.

“Police, Adjective” is a quiet film with a long echo. It raises questions about semantics, ethics, and human responsibility. It mines the tension between the spirit and letter of the law. Flush with manila folders, slow computers, and small talk, it embraces the banalities of office politics and government bureaucracy such that the slick, breakneck CSI’s of the world start to smack of highlight reel.

In “Police, Adjective” ambivalence is a bully with sights trained on earnest cops. We may not be privy to the fallout from Cristi’s drug bust, but the very initiation of it tells us all we need to know. Chalk on blackboard might as well be a white flag.


Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq (left) plays the rabble rouser Oki in “The Fast Runner.”

Fast is an understatement. Olympic sprinters, NFL halfbacks, Kenyan marathoners, they wouldn’t stand a chance against Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq), the hale protagonist of “The Fast Runner.” At least not in the snow.

To escape the walrus-tusk spear of his archrival Oki (Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq), a blade stained tomato red with the blood of his older brother, Atanarjuat hares, naked and barefoot, across blinding horizons of Canadian tundra. He hurdles Arctic Sea inlets, maneuvers drifts. Sylvester Stallone, conditioning on Siberian hills in “Rocky IV” appears sluggish by comparison. Agony has rarely had nimbler feet.

“The Fast Runner” has commensurate agility. The film is part antiquarian history, part morality play, part YouTube video uploaded from the Ice Age. The culture in question is that of the Inuit of northern Canada. They carve igloos and hitch dog sleds. They scavenge seal meat, consult shamans, flex knuckles around open jaws and rip.

From our modern, one might say docile, lookout, the vagaries of this world appear gruesome, strange. But Atanarjuat and his kin are all too familiar. In their struggles to survive and find fraternity amid the elements, they could be characters from a Joseph Conrad or James Dickey novel, if not the originals of our kind.

Like Italian director Ermanno Olmi’s “Tree of Wooden Clogs,” Zacharias Kunuk’s nearly three-hour epic revels in raw, revelatory performances from a cast of indigenous actors speaking a marginalized language. Unlike that neorealist classic, “The Fast Runner” wears an eerie, preternatural skein.

On occasion, the latter clouds an otherwise percipient plot. We are dissatisfied, for instance, to learn that the friction between Atanarjuat and Oki spawns from a punchdrunk shaman’s curse. Deep down, we know the discord is more dynamic, we feel sure that Oki has been a knowing, even willing, rogue. We have watched Atanarjuat, beneath the glassy dome of an igloo, win the hand of gentle Atuat (Sylvia Ivalu), watched Oki, in return, darken the snow with revenge.

In the end, the late screenwriter Paul Apak Angilirq, who adapted the story from an Inuit legend, knows better, too. “The Fast Runner” culminates with a communal powwow that results not only in the hex’s undoing but also in Oki’s ouster from the tribe. Now there is an idea worthy of this film: that we could be guilty of the lives we are destined to endure.


Drew Bratcher is the editor of EthnoTraveler.