Mysteries of Lisbon
Directed By: Raúl Ruiz
Written By: Carlos Saboga, from the novel by Camilo Castelo Branco
Starring: Adriano Luz, Maria Joao Bastos, Ricardo Pererira, Clotilde Hesme, Joao Arrais, and Jose Afonso Pimentel.
Director of Photography: Andre Szankowski, Editors: Carlos Madaleno and Valeria Sarmiento, Art Director: Paula Szabo, Original Music: Jorge Arriagada
Rated: Unrated, but sex, death, love, war, and all the matters of what we called life.
There was a moment in Raúl Ruiz’s epic drama Mysteries of Lisbon where the audience I was viewing the film with couldn’t help but unintentionally laugh. Father Dinis is meeting with a peripheral character, who has had no impact on the story. The old monk tells him, “I have a long story to tell you. It may seem pointless, but all will reveal itself at the end.” This comes at the two and a half hour mark of this four and a half hour film, and at this point, the audience finally gets it, as almost every character we have run into has a story to tell that seems to diverge wildly from the main narrative. Story defines us, gives us existence, and reveals the inner truth of our lives, with each story filling the details of another.
And it’s this Russian doll structured narrative, along with Ruiz’s brilliant and fascinating direction, that make Mysteries of Lisbon the type of film you could sit in for hours upon hours. Ruiz, a Chilean exile who passed away just last week after spending most of his life in Paris, made over 100 films in his life (a final film was shot though its current state is unknown), and you can tell this is the type of unique cinematic precision he enjoyed. Mysteries of Lisbon, adapted from Camilo Castelo Branco’s epic Portuguese novel (never translated into English), covers so many themes and ideas, but none are lost in translation. This is a gargantuan film of cinematic proportions that could have been the stuff of shlock and silly melodrama. But Ruiz doesn’t allow such tone to take over, he embraces it with a unique, slightly distanced eye that favors ideas over emotions; this is the thinking man’s Visconti.
Mysteries of Lisbon runs at a languid pace, which may frustrate people who were able to survive the frenetic energy of the equally long and excellent Carlos from Ruiz’s contemporary Olivier Assayas. But Ruiz has his own style that fits his narrative, which begins with the young João, a young orphan living in a Catholic school under the tutelage of Father Dinis (Adriano Luz). We’re set in the Napoleonic era of Portugal, under France’s rule and set around the aristocracy, whose problems are so silly, yet make for great cinema nonetheless. João wants to discover the truth behind his parents, but Dinis is resistant, as the story is a very long one. But when his mother finally leaves her cruel husband and returns to João, the story is revealed.
However, it is not only her story, but the story of João’s father, Pedro (which then becomes João’s name), and their tragic romance. And then we learn the shocking coincidences that led to João’s birth, and then we get a dozen other stories. Who was the mysterious man who warned the Count of Santa Barbara from marrying João’s mother? What ever happened to Pedro’s murderer? What’s a French aristocratic woman doing in Portugal? Mr. Ruiz has no interest in propelling his story forward, but instead takes us through flashback after flashback. Minor characters in one story become the protagonists of another. Villains become heroes. And each story ends with an absurd connection of lineage or heritage.
There are fascinating characters throughout. Dinis is both a comforting mentor, but also a man of wild passions throughout his past. Ricardo Pererira shows up as the charming, dashing, and charismatic Alberto, and the actor gives off a mixture of Cary Grant meets Clint Eastwood. And Clotilde Hesme may only appear in the final hour of the film, but her role as a woman seeking revenge shows sparks of unforgettable passion. But these actors don’t play it for melodrama—everything is approached with a more staid, inquisitive approach, where actors let each other finish their lines and slowly approach dialogue as if every word counts (and in a film all about storytelling, it certainly does).
Mysteries if Lisbon, like Carlos, originally played as a miniseries running 6 hours, but it never feels like you are missing anything in this slightly edited version. Because the narrative is so sprawling, it instead moves free flowingly between anyone who wants to tell a story, as characters pop in and out. Themes are just as sprawling as well—stories of ignorance as bliss, impossible romances worth fighting for, the role of upstairs and downstairs, and the importance of confession (Mr. Ruiz is surprisingly fresh with his use of religion in the film, its throughout the film’s atmosphere and moral consideration, but never centered). Although the stories have a Dickens like tone, the real influence behind both the novel and Mr. Ruiz’s intention seem to be Boccaccio and Chaucer.
But Mysteries of Libson would just be an overlong adaptation if it was all in the narrative. Instead, Mr. Ruiz pulls off some of the most fascinating camerawork of the year, a style that pulls from Orson Welles, PT Anderson, and the best of current world cinema. Most scenes are done in a single camera shot, often playing out over five or even ten minutes. The camera, instead of cutting, slowly glides along to reveal things hidden around corners or to show the particular emotions of a character. Take one particular master stroke: a woman is pregnant and near birth, and we begin with the man and woman starring lovingly. The camera pulls out as the doctor and man talk in the other room about the chances of her death during childbirth. As the woman screams out, the man rushes to her, and so does the camera. But he is soon forced out by the doctor, and the camera is as well. A minute later, the child is born, and the camera swings to find a maid taking care of the baby, and then slowly pans over to reveal the man crying over the woman’s now lifeless corpse.
What is so great about how Mr. Ruiz handles cinema in this way is that he is able to repeat this type of amazing feat over and over again, each time full of freshness. When he cuts within a scene, it is actually motivated (has American cinema fallen so far?), and truly is showing something we couldn’t see before. I have yet to see any other of Mr. Ruiz’s works—his best known film is a very Proustian adaptation of Proust called Time Regained—but few films spark the cinematic imagination the way he does it here.
By the time that Mysteries of Lisbon reaches its conclusion, it’s hard not to be swallowed up in its genius, as the film truly creates a world wind of feelings, emotions, and pathos through a cinematic language of its own. This is the type of narrative that under another’s hands, could have been overly dramatic and silly, at best a minor work. But Mr. Ruiz knows how to approach the material with reverence for its absurdity and a zest for its ingenuity. You’ve never seen melodrama like this before.