Mysteries of Lisbon (2010, Raúl Ruiz)


Raúl Ruiz’s last major film, the sprawling four-hour epic Mysteries of Lisbon was initially screened as a miniseries on television abroad but functions equally well as a sprawling, utterly engrossing cinematic experience. Among its many other grand achievements — to stick with aesthetics, the film is absolutely gorgeous to look at, with a lovely classicist music score by Jorge Arriagada and Luís de Freitas Branco — is its wondrously knowing fusion of the high and the low; its soap-operatics and melodrama will resonate strongly with fans of the Hollywood costume drama but also carry the transformative sweep of great literature. It functions as a sort of almost comically (at times) despairing Portugese Gone with the Wind, and Ruiz is the perfect choice to approach its nuance with genuine humanism and good humor, a stark contrast to something like Polanski’s Tess that sort of drowns in its own self-regard.

Presenting any kind of rundown of the story is a futile gesture for several reasons, one major one being how Lisbon illustrates Ruiz’s long-running opposition to the Western conceit of the single-conflict narrative, as he described to Jonathan Rosenbaum in the early ’90s. I admit, I’m a stickler for single-conflict theory and in the absence of it, I prefer films in which very little happens (The Turin Horse, say) to films in which an enormously convoluted number of things happen without any discernible thesis or direction, but maybe that’s an unreasonable prejudice. And besides, this is riveting from first to last, its narrative ebbing and flowing in a marvelously tangential fashion that seduces us with its gorgeous long pans and spins its massive yarns calmly and casually. These are wild and woolly tales of gypsies, orphans, pirates, priests, and various combinations and transformations thereof, rife with Dickensian coincidences, returns from the distant past, and all the unrequited love every great romantic story needs.

Ruiz’s fluid technique, which somewhat suggests Barry Lyndon, allows for a dreamlike sense of lives intertwining, his camera bounding along slowly to satisfy voyeuristic curiosities, zeroing in on tightly sealed doors that no one is allowed to open and, of course, the elevation of matters of the heart to near-titanic importance. It’s all very juvenile and wonderful, and despite its runtime is never once boring for even a second. Whereas the first half is mostly devoted to a singular tale of parentage, lost love and hidden identities, the latter section goes apeshit with the various twisted conundrums arising out of the first, growing more complicated every second, and you won’t be permitted time to stop and catch your breath without deployment of the pause button.

There’s more depth here than the above suggests, though, specifically in the way Ruiz’s tightly compressed and frantic narrative captures a calm point about the passage of time — the tale here spanning a few decades — and how the moral transgression of a certain time passes without much effort into “the way things are,” as well as the human need for reinvention and escape. Ruiz doesn’t try to connect these dots to any modernist perspective, which is all the better; it may no longer be necessary for one to retire to a nunnery if she has an “illegitimate” child, but the emotional resonance of her plight doesn’t therefore suffer.

The performances are uniformly good and add to the film’s knack to absorb, but it does seem worth singling out the two actors whose work covers the largest proportion of the various plots and subplots. The compassionate Father Dinis is lovingly captured by Adriano Luz in his various guises, and despite his kindly exterior he remains an enigma, whereas his mirror image, the pirate and later playboy Alberto de Magalhães, deliciously brought to life by fashion model Ricardo Pereira, is a blatant sort of nincompoop whose tall-dark-stranger ways bring him largely undeserved power. The acting is both wildly ridiculous and endearingly calm about its surrounding absurdities, and sell the thesis that Ruiz meant this more than anything as a cracking good time, replete with dropped notes and depressive sailings around the world. Pull up a seat and let yourself go.

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