DVD Mysteries Of Lisbon
Mysteries Of Lisbon is the last film produced by Raul Ruiz, the great director who sadly passed away in 2011. Based on a novel by Camilo Castelo Branco and originally designed to be a six-and-a-half hour television mini-series, the producers decided to release it as a four-and-a-half hour long cinema release, probably hoping to increase its international presence. Assuming the rather cynical – and, in all likelihood, financial – motives for this release, at least it allows an international audience to own it on DVD.
Mysteries Of Lisbon centres around an orphan, introduced to the audience as Joao, a boy with no surname. Growing up in the orphanage, Joao is brought up by the stern but decent Father Dinis, a dark figure whose past bears its own mysteries. Soon, Joao finds out the identity of his mother and, as a consequence, his real name, Pedro de la Silva. His mother, Angela, is a noblewoman, imprisoned by her husband after the latter found out about the existence of this illegitimate child.
From this point on, the past is cleverly woven into a circular structure around this young protagonist, who becomes a catalyst for several layers of time and multiple versions of past happenings…
In this world, secrets rule the day, and Father Dinis is the main keeper of those secrets. Even though he admits to not wanting to know most of them, he seems awfully busy trying to source them out. Most of these mysteries are ultimately linked to the notions of name and identity. They get slanted, change, get omitted, discovered, they are made up, earned and recovered. Most of the characters alter their names as they take on a new life. The change of names comes to stand for new beginnings and opportunities, even if, ultimately, the old catches up with the new.
Reminiscent of a Visconti costume drama, the film benefits from the use of natural lighting.
It proves hard to find a narrative centre to this film, as the plotlines get sidetracked by the numerous characters and their past indiscretions. Let it just be said that gypsies become priests, assassins turn into noblemen, and femme fatales plot evil revenge, while all notion of love is an unhappy and forbidden one. You might be misled to think that, on the mere grounds of plot, this is a Gothic soap opera. Not so. Still, only Ruiz’s elegant hand in directing prevents it from descending into melodrama. Ruiz obviously enjoys his material and treats it with a playfulness which makes the film a joy to watch.
Reminiscent of a Visconti costume drama, the film benefits from the use of natural lighting – in this case, candlelight – while the camera glides along the exquisite drawing rooms of the aristocracy with accomplished long shots. The outside scenes are bathed in melancholic summer light, which comes to match the characters’ inner turmoil as they exchange longing glances and their emotions prove their own undoing. Even though extremely complex in his treatment of character, Ruiz manages to comprehensively nestle the narrative strands within each other to form an understandable whole. The main notion of the film is based on the idea that the past comes to infiltrate the present and is never finite; the concept of time and memory is treated as subjective and overlapping. Here, Ruiz clearly follows the tradition of his masterpiece, the adaptation of the Proust novel Time Regained.
At the same time, Ruiz makes his audience aware of the artifice of the very medium he is shooting in. In employing an almost Brechtian manner, he keeps disrupting the illusion of the film world. Pedro continuously observes as the action of the characters around him play out in his theatre diorama, given to him by his mother. As such, the notion of self-conscious play is not only emphasised, it deliberately dominates the film. Most of the scenes between aristocratic characters are observed by servants lingering in door frames. Their presence not only lends the film a historically accurate note, it also comes to stand in as a substitute for the audience, a phenomenon one cannot help but be conscious of while watching the film.
It’s hard to talk about the Mysteries Of Lisbon without mentioning its length. Admittedly, at the end of hour two, when the inscription ‘End of Part One’ comes up on the screen, and a character states they have a long story to tell, you’d better get the kettle on. That being said, long and boring are not synonymous here. The unashamed pleasure Ruiz has in depicting these figures – which, as one character self-ironically admits, seem to have sprung from a Radcliffe novel – translates to what can only be described as pure fun for the viewer. The characters’ actions and reactions are extremely over the top as, for example, Father Dinis keeps the skull of his dead mother in a shrine; a charismatic gypsy with a scar on his face makes his way into the upper class; and the female characters elegantly faint and suffer with an exclusivity only attributed to the idle. One of the best lines of the film occurs in a description of the Countess of Santa Barbara who “had a shrine of love in her soul and they (men) turned it into a cup of bile.” Get your smelling salts out, because rarely have emotions been this dramatically depicted by extremely beautiful people.
All in all, Mysteries Of Lisbon is an accomplished piece of filmmaking by the late Ruiz. Elegantly directed and carefully drawn out, the film ticks all the boxes in terms of its genre, while additionally presenting moments of avant-garde cinematography. After all, introducing a character named Knife-Eater deserves nothing but respect in this reviewer’s opinion. So, if you find the time, this Portuguese melodrama deserves your attention. If, however, you are not fond of costume dramas or over-excited, emotional characters, stay away from this four-and-a-half hour epic.
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