Esprit de Corpse: A young photographer is moved when a dead girl smiles at him.
Esprit de Corpse: A young photographer is moved when a dead girl smiles at him.

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Lofty themes and an auteur’s pedigree don’t excuse poor execution in The Strange Case of Angelica, a film written and directed by 102-year-old Manoel de Oliveira. Yes, you could call the 1950s-set story the director’s personal meditation on life and death, on the stark divide between old-fashioned ways and modern society. But boy, what an uneven slog to get to those conclusions.

The film centers on Isaac (Ricardo Trêpa), a photographer who is documenting old-school farmers when he’s suddenly called to a wealthy family’s estate to photograph its beautiful, recently deceased daughter, Angélica (Pilar López de Ayala). When Isaac trains his camera on Angélica, however, she opens her eyes and smiles. That’s all it takes for Isaac to become obsessed, flying with her like Superman and Lois Lane in his dreams with a big, goofy grin on his face, certain that he’s found “absolute love.”

Meanwhile, Isaac’s landlady (Adelaide Teixeira) talks—and talks and talks—with her friends about how odd her tenant has been acting lately, based on nothing but the fact that he likes to photograph laborers and he’s started moaning in his sleep. This conversation, with two gray-haired men and a younger woman, takes an eternity and feels forced, not helped by horrendously stiff acting and the characters not only repeating each other, but wandering to topics such as the economy, pollution, and anti-matter.

Also quizzical is the hostility with which the maid of the estate treats Isaac—which, in a normal film, would not even be worth mentioning, but there’s so little going on here that every unusual detail begs attention. De Oliveira instead fills the 97-minute run time with static shots of landscapes, recently vacated rooms, and a light, gentle score of Chopin, which would lend the film a certain lyricism if you weren’t so irritated by the little action that does take place.