Mysteries of Lisbon Dir. Raúl Ruiz

[Music Box Films; 2010]

Styles: 19th-century Brechtian period drama
Others: Barry Lyndon, The Library of Babel

It’s easy to get lost in Mysteries of Lisbon, a long, heady, free-flowing matryoshka of hidden pasts and passageways. I certainly did. Plot-wise, Raúl Ruiz’ film asks a great deal of the viewer, as it introduces new characters, reveals alternate identities, and skips to different decades and countries at the drop of a hat (or, rather, a cut). It’s also nearly five hours long, even longer in its original form as a television miniseries. But about halfway through, when my mind had already missed a temporal shift or two, I realized that getting lost is sort of the point. It’s a film where the phrase “I will tell you a story” nearly becomes a punchline, as each new tale — worthy as films unto themselves — discreetly underlines the unexpected (and often peripheral) ways in which the life of one person intertwines with another, and another, and so on. What begins as the story of a bastard child searching for his parents gradually reveals that everybody’s life, including that of the cinematic image itself, has been bastardized.

To be blunt: this film, shot on high-definition, displays what is possibly the most detailed mise-en-scène of any movie you’ll see this year. A baroque sense of composition abounds, wherein Ruiz eschews closeups, opting instead for impossibly fluid long takes that circle around the characters for minutes at a time. Not only does this give each scene a strong sense of setting, but also a staggeringly porous frame that often resembles a pop-up children’s book. Nearly every shot is gaping with corners, hallways, or holes to look into; sometimes we notice servants or other peripheral characters listening in the background, often for no other reason than that they are there. In some ways, Lisbon feels like a series of ornate theatrical productions, as if Ruiz is repeatedly opening doors to invite us to watch grandly staged reversals of fortune.

Apart from its visual splendor, half the wonder of Lisbon is teasing out its complex layers of plot for yourself. Although it serves the film little to describe the whole story — I probably couldn’t, even if I tried — I’ll give you a glimpse. In 19th-century Portugal, young João (João Luis Arrais), an orphan who attends a boarding school run by priest Father Dinis (Adriano Luz), realizes that he isn’t really an orphan. He meets his mother, a countess named Ângela de Lima (Maria João Bastos), who is everything he could have wanted; but the story of her courtship with Don Pedro (João Baptista), João’s father, didn’t end so neatly. Strikingly, this story is told through two sets of flashbacks, as we see Don Pedro telling his story to Father Dinis some years before, in addition to watching it for ourselves. This is the first of about a dozen storylines in the film; by the intermission, you will be more invested in the priest, and many other characters, than you had any reason to expect.

If Lisbon’s plot machinations seem ripe for melodrama, Ruiz has his actors play it straight, keeping their emotions guarded as the room whirls around them. The nature of the performances, when coupled with the plethora of details in each scene, gives an eerie sense of time’s inevitable passing, the impression that all of these events have long been set into place. One of many aha! moments in the film occurs when (spoiler alert) a character realizes that the man who he’s been telling his story to is in fact his long-lost father. This revelation, met with solemn glances, has almost no bearing on the greater plot and is seemingly utilized by Ruiz for no reason other than to heighten the penetrable, reflexive nature of his storytelling. Admittedly, this aura of self-consciousness — reinforced by Ruiz’ occasional use of a diorama to introduce a scene — can make the film seem more like a series of head games than a tale of high adventure, and by the end, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed.

But as soon as Mysteries of Lisbon ended, I wanted to revisit it, both to marvel once again at the cinematography and to understand what I missed. For those who enjoy a good story, Ruiz’ film is a veritable Thanksgiving dinner, with distant family members slowly fading into view and joining you at the table. They remind you that destiny is malleable, or at least subject to all too many variables, and to marvel at the space and time in which it unfolds.

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