Raúl Ruiz’s Mysteries Of Lisbon (Mistérios de Lisboa) (Portugal / France, 2010) is 4-1/2 hours long, with subtitles, which, these days, seems daunting; and yet you’re pulled through it effortlessly, compellingly, graciously, by the uncommon cinematic storytelling artistry Raúl Ruiz puts on display. There are no monumental military battles, nor history-changing events, nor massive-scale cinematic feats. And yet, its stories are so intriguing, its characters so identifiable, and its presentation so generously craftsmanlike, you’ll wish it was longer.
In many ways, it made me long for the days of movie-epics-with-intermissions like ‘Gone With The Wind,’ ‘Ben Hur,’ ‘Lawrence Of Arabia,’ ‘Dr. Zhivago,’ ‘The Sound of Music’ (many musicals, back then), or Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon A Time…’ films – when movies aspired to be good novels by different means, when you could fill whole book-chapter-long expanses of the narrative with rich, sometimes momentary, visual choices; or focus on one particular eccentric thing that stops the story in its tracks but pays exponential dividends later. William Wyler’s Rome, David Lean’s Russia, Sergio Leone’s New York – we just understood, took for granted, that a really long movie, with an intermission, set in these places, was going to be (or would, at least, aspire to be) something special. We’d know everything we needed to know about each character, story arcs would swoop past each other gracefully and logically, and, three-and-a-half hours later, stiff and butt-sore, we’d feel satisfied anyway; we’d know that was time well spent, and that we’d gotten our money’s worth.
Which is why I’m heartened that the two best movies I’ve seen this year are over four hours long – ‘Mysteries Of Lisbon’ and Sion Sono’s ‘Love Exposure’ (a box office megahit in Japan, by the way) – and between the two of them, there’s honestly not a single wasted minute. I feel for them how Roger Ebert felt in 2005 about Marco Tullio Giordano’s wonderful ‘The Best Of Youth’ – “When you hear that it is six hours long, reflect that it is therefore also six hours deep.” I like an efficient 90 minute thriller or comedy as much as the next moviegoer, but there are incomparable pleasures to be found in films that need, and take, three or four hours to thoughtfully express the breadth and richness of the ideas behind them.
‘Mysteries Of Lisbon’ can be viewed in traditional terms, as a lush 18th-century soap-opera or an exquisitely presented historical fiction. But it’s also, undeniably, a genuinely modern film, incorporating contemporary ideas about the limits of cause-and-effect linear storytelling, and the inherent surreality of selecting and isolating particular pieces of reality to express particular ideas and events. Narrative subversion abounds, but those subversive strategies are so interwoven into the whole that you won’t notice them if you aren’t looking for them. You’ll just lose yourself in a generational story about royal-court intrigues, l’amour fou, the value of human memory, and the legacies each of our lives leaves behind.
The seed of this fascinating story is a young man at a religious boarding school, João (João Arrais), who, later on, will be known as Pedro da Silva. A polite and industrious boy, he’s nonetheless isolated by his ignorance of who his parents are (the first of the numerous ‘mysteries’ we’ll encounter). He’s derided by his schoolmates, who see him far more as bastard than orphan, but he’s defended throughout by his stern but wise headmaster, Father Dinis (the astonishingly good Portuguese TV actor Adriano Luz). Events transpire that slowly reveal the truth of João’s parentage, and gives bloom to the stories behind those characters, who became who they were based on the actions of yet another set of characters, who, in league with these people set these events in motion, etc., etc.. Don’t despair, though – the ever-expanding panoply of characters, events, flashbacks and revelations are, thanks to Ruiz and fellow screenwriter / adapter Carlos Saboga, always easy to follow. Throughout the chronicle of rich families, social hierarchies and moralist go-betweens, we discover heroes with dark pasts, villains with noble origins, heinous crimes perpetrated for righteous reasons, charitable acts masking self-serving opportunism, and that a number of the most interesting characters all seem to have two or three aliases, past lives, genuine identities.
Ruiz and Saboga’s script is based on a revered novel of the same name by the Portuguese writer Camilo Castelo Branco (which I don’t believe has ever been translated into English, sadly). Their adaptation is a real gift for us; concise and well-structured, but malleable enough for substantial creative flourishes. They are assisted impressively by a superb cast of Portuguese and French actors who don’t see much exposure on this side of the pond: Maria João Bastos as João’s tragic mother, Angela, the Countess of Santa Barbara; Rui Morrison as her father, the Marquis of Montezelos; Ricardo Pereira as the noble rogue Alberto de Magalhães; Albano Jerónimo , Carloto Cotta, Maria João Pinho, the radiant French actress Clothilde Hesme, and the aforementioned Adriano Luz, who acts as a fulcrum underneath the array of characters and histories that make up the tale. Performances like his are what supporting actor Oscars are for, but I suspect he’ll never get within miles of one. A shame.
Raúl Ruiz’s singular filmmaking skills are what really distinguish the film, though (his recent passing in August is a genuine loss to world filmmaking). Assisted by cinematographer André Szankowski, Ruiz’s lush, painterly (digital 35mm) imagery and scrupulously natural lighting result in some of the most gorgeous film photography I’ve seen since ‘Barry Lyndon.’ The art direction and costuming are superb, while somehow never drawing attention to itself. But how Ruiz shoots the story – where he places the camera, how he follows the characters through the environment, the almost total absence of close-ups or over-the-shoulder dialogue shots – displays profound inventiveness. There are times the camera’s view feels like an actual additional character in the scene; it peers between curtains, witnesses events through doorways, windows, eavesdrops from other rooms, and establishes isolating distances or furtive intimacies. There were three or four times where the movement of a shot literally dropped my jaw – how did he think to do that?! But, again, they’re never conspicuous, never draw undue attention. They’re just seamless visual choices that add real depth of meaning to each scene.
There are also some terrific devices that unify and expand the stories as well. Particular events are introduced, intermittently, with short depictions in a miniature toy theater of João’s, with cardboard cutout characters. When Don Álvaro de Albuquerque flees with the Countess de Viso to Venice, we see their cut-out figures on a toy gondola in the canals, even though João himself would have no knowledge of this part of the story. Clock faces become skulls, characters are reflected unnaturally in cups of tea, candles glow in otherwise brightly-lit rooms, blindfolded children appear and reappear in backgrounds – Ruiz is discreet, but clearly comfortable with adding overt surrealist elements to the naturalist proceedings – this is the kind of movie Peter Greenaway’s been trying to make for years. But what’s also important is that Ruiz chose to take the time it took to incorporate all of these seemingly disparate, but ultimately unifying, elements into the whole, deliberately, patiently.
‘Mysteries Of Lisbon’ is a masterpiece, and may be one of the finest mainstream European films I’ve ever seen. Not only do I consider this to be an unmissable event for American moviegoers, but I also point to it as yet another indicator of how far our own cultural aspirations have fallen. ‘Mysteries Of Lisbon’ didn’t need fifteen producers shelling out $250 million dollars; it just needed inventive artfulness, some courage and ambition, and 2% of that money. If it’s a great movie, a uniquely great movie, no one will care how long it is. It’s sad to think that Hollywood can’t be bothered to self-generate these kinds of films anymore. We should be grateful for the small companies willing to distribute them for the filmmakers who did take the risks, while the major studios spend their best efforts on the next unfilmed Marvel comics character, Oscar-bait vanity project, or foreign / independent film that everyone else at Sundance or Cannes already likes.
‘Mysteries Of Lisbon’ opens at the Music Box Theater on Friday, September 16th.