At the New Zealand International Film Festival: Raúl Ruiz’s sprawling, magisterial epic.
A tale of a prejudiced and jaundiced nobility in decline? An uncouth nouveau riche taking their place? A servant class treated with contempt? Tales within tales? The collision between the public and private spheres? The role of art in preserving the destructive effects of time? It’s no surprise that the great Chilean-French director Raúl Ruiz—whose most commercially successful film was an adaptation of Marcel Proust’s similarly themed Le Temps Retrouvé (Time Regained, 1999)—was attracted to 19th Century Portuguese writer Camilo Castelo Branco’s epic novel. Given Ruiz’s previous rare feat of turning a great novel into a great movie, it’s hardly unexpected that he succeeds with Mysteries of Lisbon. And how. The result is a sprawling masterpiece, a film so rich and complete that I could have watched it for hours longer. Originally a six-hour miniseries, one can only hope that the full version is made available on DVD.
While Branco’s novels haven’t been translated into English (or if they have, aren’t easily accessible), his work has been adapted for the big screen before, by Manoel de Oliveira no less (1979’s Ill-Fated Love). The novel Ruiz films, Os Mistérios de Lisboa, is loosely focused on João, a young boarding school pupil under the tutelage of a kind but mysterious priest named Father Dinis. As João searches for clues about his identity and past (he was delivered to Dinis as a child, and knew nothing of his parents), he finds out more about a changing Portugal through various characters and their narratives. The film is set in the early 19th Century, post-Bonaparte, post-French Revolution, post-Portugal losing its jewel colony Brazil—a society and social structure in deep, deep decline. João is essentially an empty receptacle for all of this, and in spite of his cluelessness, becomes someone into whom we witness life, death, and everything in between falling.
Mysteries of Lisbon is steeped in digressions, unreliable narrators, and the simple pleasure of spinning a yarn—post-modern concerns that easily mock the idea od post-modernism as a ‘new’ concept. And fans of Ruiz’s previous work (most notably the wonderful The Crowns of the Sailor and Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting) will recognise Ruiz’s light touch at handling potentially confounding material. Indeed, Mysteries of Lisbon is a surprisingly easy watch: melodrama and soap opera (one could, without meaning to sound pejorative, suggest that Proust’s In Search of Lost Time was very similar) is filtered through a deeply serious and avant-garde approach. There is so much pleasure in the storytelling, that you can almost sense Ruiz’s glee in having characters announce “I’ll tell you later,” or ask for more detail “without meaning to sound indiscreet.”
And it helps that the film is so gorgeous to watch. Composed of rich colours, opulent (if decaying) settings, and a fastidious attention to detail, Ruiz also breaks the private barriers erected by characters with swooping camerawork, which seems to dissolve walls and sidle up to private moments and conversations. Lengthy, elaborately choreographed takes are breathtaking in their construction. Doors are left open, characters are eavesdropped on, and characters are forced to confess when they would rather sleep or die—the feeling one of necessary intrusion in order for the story to be told. There’s a suggestion that the process of creation is a violent one, that something must be lost in order for something to be created. Full of art in its mise-en-scène and its soundtrack—whether it be paintings, theatre, fashion, music, architecture, or storytelling— Ruiz’s film is ultimately grounded in death and mortality. Mysteries of Lisbon also affirms cinema’s ability as a medium to coalesce a variety of artistic approaches into something magnificent, something that fights off death. It’s an exhilarating and stunning experience.