A masterpiece of storytelling genius in the vein of Arabian Nights
|Mysteries of Lisbon (2010) - By Raúl Ruiz|
Our Rating: 9.5
Genre: Drama | Mystery
Cast: Adriano Luz, Maria João Bastos, Ricardo Pereira
Country: Portugal | France
Language: Portuguese | French | English
Runtime: 272 min
Summary: Follows a jealous countess, a wealthy businessman, and a young orphaned boy across Portugal, France, Italy and Brazil where they connect with a variety of mysterious individuals.
Mysteries of Lisbon (aka Mistérios de Lisboa) is a 2010 Franco-Portuguese romantic period drama film directed by the late Chilean master filmmaker Raúl Ruiz. The screenplay, written by Carolos Saboga, is an adaptation of an 1854 novel of the same name by the celebrated 19th century Portuguese novelist and playwright Camilo Castelo Branco. A prolific writer with a vast oeuvre comprising over 260 different titles—mostly plays, novels and essays—Branco is known for his singular style which was a seamless blend of melodrama, romanticism, wit, sarcasm, pathos, and dark humor. Speaking of prolificacy, Ruiz, with over 100 highly diverse films to his credit, made in different languages, is not far behind. Prior to the coup d’état of 1971 carried under the military command of Augusto Pinochet, Ruiz was the film advisor to Salvador Allende’s socialist government in Chile, but Pinochet’s ascension to power forced Ruiz to go into exile in Europe which would become his adopted home until his death in August, 2011. Ruiz's final completed feature Night Across the Street (2012) was selected to be screened posthumously in the Directors' Fortnight section of the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. Since, for the major part of his career, Ruiz neither lived in Latin America nor made his films in the Spanish language, he is sometimes mistaken as a European filmmaker.
|Father Dinis attends to the convalescent João|
Storytelling is one of the most potent tools known to man. It’s not merely a means of indulgence but also a great source of inspiration. Since time immemorial, storytellers have found ways to amuse mankind by spinning yarns of their imagination. Be it the “Illiad” and the “Odyssey” of Homer, the “Mahabharata” of Vyasa, the “Jataka” tales, the “One Thousand and One Nights,” or the plays of Shakespeare, each of these masterful tales, more than anything, has proven to be a consummate manifestation of human expression. Another such tale is Camilo Castelo Branco’s Portuguese epic drama "Os Mistérios de Lisboa". And, just like any great tale, it deserved to be made into a motion picture. And, who better than Raúl Ruiz to helm such an ambitious project, having previously adapted the seventh and final volume of another ambitious masterwork of literature, Marcel Proust’s magnum opus “In Search of Lost Time,” as Time Regained (1999). Make no mistake! It’s no cinch to adapt any major work of world literature into a motion-picture. But, Ruiz was never the one to be daunted by any challenge. Not only did he successfully adapt Branco’s work, but, in the process, also gave cinema its first major epic of the 21st century.
|Alberto de Magalhães with wife Eugénia|
Ruiz, during the course of his long and illustrious career, made such multilayered films that carried a universal appeal, thus defying geographical boundaries and transcending genres. It’s worth noting that Ruiz was a student of law, theology and theatre; his profound knowledge of these disciplines is visible in all his films. In fact, Ruiz’ cinema can be looked upon as a fascinating amalgamation of the elements of theology, politics, crime, and theatre of the absurd. While Ruiz offered great attention to cinema aesthetics, he was equally keen on experimenting with novel cinematographic ideas and techniques. Because of being quite high on the intellectual quotient, Ruiz’ films can be rather challenging for the uninitiated lot, but, at the same time, a well-informed, keen-eyed viewer can extract a lot out of his thoroughly absorbing cinematic essays that feed on bizarre, labyrinthine plots, pay great importance to the use of space and time, and seamlessly blend the sensuous intimacy of text with the visual splendor of the motion picture. In a nutshell, Ruiz’ cinema can be looked upon as a continuation of the long tradition of storytellers, from Homer to Eisenstein, Sophocles to Welles, Goethe to Buñuel, Joyce to Kurosawa. And, Mysteries of Lisbon is no exception!
|Clotilde Hesme as Elisa de Montfort|
Running slightly longer than four-and-a-half hours, Raul Ruiz’ Mysteries of Lisbon is a sprawling saga of love, intrigue, power, jealousy, honor, hatred, trust, betrayal, compassion, and obsession, with a vast panoply of characters, ranging from coquettish countesses to quixotic lovers, scandalous priests to jealous soldiers, shifty noblemen to honorable brigands, chivalrous knights to sissy cuckolds, which gives us glimpses of the 19th century European aristocracy. Its hypnotic narrative, wrapped in a veil of extraordinary coincidences, is highly reminiscent of the works of Balzac, Hugo, and Dickens. At the center of the tale is a boy named João who is born out of wedlock. João is looked after and taught by a kind pastor named Father Dinis, who, as the plot progresses, gradually emerges as the movie’s pivotal character. João’s peers at the convent suspect Father Dinis to be his biological father. One day when João falls sick after being bullied by another boy who accuses him of being a criminal’s child, he is visited by a certain Countess Ângela de Lima. Who is this angelic countess? How is Father Dinis related to her and João? Rest assured, Mysteries of Lisbon will keep you on the edge of the seat until the very end! And, then there is the enigmatic Alberto de Magalhães who is a part of João’s past, present and future. Magalhães’ caricature would be taken up in detail later. Bear in mind that it's not merely Branco but a synergistic symphony of Branco and Ruiz that is on full display here.
|Léa Seydoux as Blanche de Montfort|
In Mysteries of Lisbon, Ruiz limns a beautiful canvas for the audience with the meticulousness of a tightrope walker. Ruiz is at the top of his game and seems to be in ultimate control of things: be it art direction, costume design, cinematography, editing, music, or casting. At different points in the movie a lesser character is seen either observing the proceedings from a distance or eavesdropping on the conversation between the main characters. In doing so, Ruiz chooses to emphasize on the act of observation in the film, thus inviting the viewer to be a part of the experience, and, in the process, blurring the lines that separate theatre from cinema. The end product is a visual feast, an intellectual extravaganza like seen never before on the celluloid. The mysteries of Lisbon unfold like a jigsaw puzzle; the picture becomes clearer as individual pieces start to fall in the right places. We get to see different characters across different timelines whose lives get entwined by bizarre coincidences of fate. Some of these characters reemerge at a later point in time under different names and identities. The movie’s story-within-a-story-within-a-story narrative, devised in the vein of “One Thousand and One Nights,” makes it almost impossible to grasp the things as they happen, for there is so much going on at any given point in the movie that it becomes a real challenge to keep a track of things. But, gradually, as more plot and character details fill in, the things start to become clearer, though, once the dust settles, certain ambiguities still remain in the minds of the viewer. A second and possibly a third viewing may prove to be beneficial. In his review of Mysteries of Lisbon, the late American film critic, Roger Ebert, writes, “As in Citizen Kane, it sometimes feels as if we've entered a flashback through the eyes of one character, and emerged from it through the eyes of another.”
|The Knife Eater (right) encounters Sabino Cabra|
Speaking of the movie’s multifaceted characters, Father Dinis is revealed as the ultimate master of disguise. He is an adept shape-shifter who is invariably present in one guise or the other, defying the sands of time across different timelines, at key junctures in the story, on some occasions as a deus ex machine and on the others as a bystander or a secondary character. But, he is not the only shape-shifter around, for there are others who are no less adept in concealing their true identities. Among these other masters of disguise, there’s one that stands out, who, at first, goes by the peculiar name of “Knife Eater”. His is easily the most complex caricature on display in Mysteries of Lisbon. Tall and strongly built, the Knife Eater comes across as the proverbial savage, all brawn and no brains, but an epiphanous encounter with a mysterious gypsy, Sabino Cabra, proves to be a life-changing experience for this remorseless assassin, which frees his spirit and opens him up to the path of knowledge and science. In his new avatar of Alberto de Magalhães, the Knife Eater appears as a suave and wealthy businessman with an obscure past who is happily married to a beautiful woman named Eugénia. In hot pursuit of Magalhães is the yet another enigmatic character, Elisa de Montfort, the French duchess of Cliton. The archetypal femme fatale, Elisa de Montfort is hell-bent on possessing Magalhães. He would either belong to her or to no one else. And, just when things seem to go out of control for the two of them, guess who comes to their rescue? The story’s deus ex machine, Father Dinis. But, coincidences don’t end here. When Elisa de Montfort returns to France, she encounters the quixotic lover and poet, Pedro. But, who is Pedro? He is none other than the story’s protagonist, João, who has now grown up into a handsome young man. At the beginning of the film, we are warned that what we are about to witness is “a diary of suffering”. Behind the façade of splendor, Mysteries of Lisbon is indeed a tragedy of epic proportions, reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez’ “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” for the misery of solitude and pain of failure is omnipresent and everlasting.
|A Still from Mysteries of Lisbon: Puppet Theatre|
Ruiz has been noted in the world of cinema as a filmmaker who is not afraid to experiment and improvise. One delightful improvisation that Ruiz uses in Mysteries of Lisbon is the use of a puppet theatre. In the film, João receives a miniaturist theatre as a gift and Ruiz uses the very toy as a tool to mark the transition of one scene to the next. It not only adds to the movie’s complexity but also enhances it aesthetic value. It's like being in a world of dreams where the toys seem to have come to life. These toys only dramatize the pain of the characters that are caught in existential prisons, probably as a penance for the deeds of their ancestors. But, why does Ruiz complicate things? Well, the answer lies in what Ruiz once cheekily said, “If you can make it complicated, why make it simple?” In doing so, Ruiz succeeds in transmuting the absurd and the ironic into the sublime. Time and space are of great significance to Ruiz. In Mysteries of Lisbon, Ruiz fiddles with the idea of “multiplicity of time”. But, what is “multiplicity of time”? Well, it is basically a devise using which it becomes possible to capture two or more instances of time simultaneously. In order to understand it better, one needs to analyze the duel sequence towards the end of the film. In the very sequence, which is shot almost in real time, there is a character that stays in the background throughout the scene. Ruiz explains, “At first one doesn't not see him, and suddenly, one doesn't see anything else. One wonders: ‘What is he doing there?’ The only thing he does is walk around the bottom until the others have left. Then, out of a sudden, he is placed in the center of the image and he commits suicide. This is a game that is played often in the film: I move the center of the narrative space attention to a child, and that creates a multiplicity of times, durations, which I think is very cinematic and is impossible to capture in literature.”
|A Still from Mysteries of Lisbon: The Execution Scene|
In addition to the above duel sequence—which is highly reminiscent of the lavish duel sequences depicted in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) and Ridley Scott’s The Duellists (1977)—Mysteries of Lisbon offers many more memorable scenes. The most impressive has to be the movie’s final sequence in which the dying Pedro remembers his childhood days at the convent as the present and the past merges into one, making it impossible for the viewer to separate the real from the surreal. Was it, which we all witness after João falls sick early in the film, the imagination of a child desperate to unravel the mystery of his parentage? Ruiz’ ever so playful style never ceases to amaze this critic. Then there is a chilling sequence in which João is spoken to by a child who gestures to a man who is about to be hanged in public; the child nonchalantly tells João that the very man is his father before innocently asking the latter to play with him. Is Ruiz keen on evoking our pity or revulsion? Or, is Ruiz trying to direct us in a certain direction? Well, metaphors and symbolism are an important part of Ruiz’ work. Ruiz states in his book Poetics of Cinema: “Often, and at times immodestly, I have made use of metaphors in order to approach intuitively certain ideas; many of which could best be described as images and half-glimpsed visions. I hope that among them it is the angelic smile rather than the sardonic irony or the biting impetuousness that has the upper hand. ‘Metaphor’ is a word that has a bad reputation among theorists. To use it implies that one does not have clear ideas, and in that case, the best thing to do is to remain silent. That may be so and I regret it. Yet, in the present state of the arts: does anyone have clear ideas?”
|A Still from Mysteries of Lisbon: The Firing Squad Scene|
There are several instances in the film when certain characters, under extraordinary circumstances, are forced to leave their motherland. Is Ruiz lamenting for Chile, his native country, which he was forced to leave four decades ago when Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorial regime had ousted the socialist government? We have already discussed in this review the act of observation technique that Ruiz applies in Mysteries of Lisbon. The technique is best demonstrated by an alluring sequence in the film wherein Father Dinis, while travelling in his coach, observes an interesting event that takes place en route: a brawl between two noblemen which quickly develops into a spectacle. Throughout the sequence the camera doesn’t follow the two noblemen but instead stay rooted to Father Dinis during which he steps out of the carriage to get a closer look at the proceedings, inquires the bystanders about the shocking turn of events, steps back in his carriage before it slowly moves away from the scene. We only get to see as much as he does, not an iota more or less. Yet another powerful sequence that comes to this critic’s memory is the one in which a captured French soldier, fighting in the Napoleonic Wars, faces a firing squad. The scene harks back to the famous firing squad sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war masterpiece, Paths of Glory (1957). In addition, there are endless sequences featuring the beautiful puppet theatre, each of which is bound to leave a strong impression on the viewer.
|A Still from Mysteries of Lisbon: The Duel Sequence|
Overall, Mysteries of Lisbon is one of the finest specimens of filmmaking to have come out in recent times. The film is not only Ruiz’ magnum opus but is also the first major cinematic epic of the 21st century. Made on a moderate budget of 2.5 million Euros, Mysteries in Lisbon adds a whole new dimension to the epic filmmaking made popular by the likes of Akira Kurosawa, David Lean, and Werner Herzog. Here is a film that combines the cerebral impulses of literature with the visual brilliance of cinema. An important theme of Mysteries of Lisbon is the law of primogeniture, which gave the firstborn child to inherit the family estate, leaving the younger siblings in destitution. Branco, like the protagonist João, was born out of wedlock and his biological father, just like João’s, despite being born in an illustrious household, was forced to live in near-poverty due to the strict law of primogeniture. Thus, it wouldn’t be farfetched to regard Mysteries of Lisbon as a semi-autobiographical work. Mysteries of Lisbon’s theatrical cut is 272 minutes long and can pose a serious challenge to the viewers. In some countries, it was played as a six episode miniseries in 55-minute installments. But, not a second of it is boring by any means. Mysteries of Lisbon does require patience to begin with but slowly it begins to cast its spell on the viewer, teleporting him to a world of breathtaking imagery, turbulent emotions, extraordinary coincidences, endless ambiguities, and shape-shifting characters. Vintage Ruiz, Mysteries of Lisbon is not a film but an experience. A must watch!
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