Romantic labyrinths, from a book of serials
Raúl Ruiz’s beautiful and dauntingly complex new film, Mysteries of Lisbon (Misterios de Lisboa), which has been made up (in the manner of Olivier Assayas’ current Carlos) into two versions, a four-and-a-half-hour theatrical one and a longer one of six 55-minute segments for TV, is a confounding, hypnotic series of tales-within-tales-within-tales as intricate as anything in the Arabian Nights, or a John Barth reinvention thereof. But this isn’t Baghdad under Haroun al-Rashid. It’s 18th- and 19th-century Portugal and France, and the original story comes from the single hand of Camilo Castelo Branco, 1st Viscount de Correia Botelho, a 19th-century Portutuese writer who penned over 260 books, and still had time to live a life as turbulent as this film, one ended by his own hand when he learned he was going blind from syphilis.
Like the young João, AKA Pedro, around whom the narrative revolves, Castelo Branco was born out of wedlock and orphaned very young. The 1854 series of back-tracking and interlocking Gothic-cum-amour fou tales of revenge, duels, revelations, changed identities, and wild, mostly adulterous romances recap some of the writer’s own experiences, rearranged to fit literary motifs and historical themes. Castelo Branco studied medicine and then for the priesthood, afterward dedicating himself to writing — and adultery, for which he was imprisoned. He eventually settled down and wrote for a living; the title of viscount was conferred on him for his writing. There are inconsistencies in the narrative because Castel Branco wrote for serials, and lost track of what he’d said earlier. However, the film, of course, is from a screenplay, by Carlos Saboga.
Though made (according to prominent freelance producer Paulo Branco) for only $2 million, Mysteries of Lisbon nonetheless has sumptuous production values, with lovely costumes, exquisite real interiors and landscapes that look like paintings wherein a cast is deployed whose named characters alone number over three dozen. It begins promisingly, like an unusually delicate and self-possessed bildingsroman, with the young Pedro da Silva (João Luís Arrais), a handsome 14-year-old at a boarding school under the protection of a priest. Pedro, then known as João, says in voiceover “I had no idea who I was.” He soon learns that he is the son of a woman of noble birth. And then there is a story. And then another. And another. And that leads to another. All concern the themes mentioned above.
Unfortunately, without a synopsis in hand, and a pause button to go back and review transitions so one sees the logical connectives and understands how one tale fits into the whole, the mysteries of Lisbon, alas, remain somewhat mysterious. Perhaps they are meant to. Readers of episodes in a 19th-century serial romance might well be satisfied without the sense of a grand design. The fun was in the emotion and drama of each episode. However as one watches a long film unroll — and one thinks in this context of Ruiz’s masterful 1999 adaptation of Proust, Time Regained, as the director evidently did too, for he reportedly sought to evoke his earlier film in the mise-en-scene and cinematography (the latter by newcomer André Szankowski) — one tends to expect to make unifying, dovetailing sense of things, something difficult with the earlier film but doable if one knows one’s Proust. Ruiz does tie Mysteries up at the end, with two final scenes that are, however, intentional conundrums, but return to the character one at least wants to be central, Pedro/João, the aristocratic bastard whose desire to know his true origins is what starts the whole swirling ball rolling.
Things are clear enough at the beginning when the friar in charge of his school, Padre Diniz (Adriano Luz), introduces the 14-year-old João to Angela de Lima (Maria João Bastos). He realizes this high-born lady must be his mother. She turns out to have been imprisoned for years at his castle as punishment for her adultery by her husband, the Count of Santa Barbara (Albano Jerónimo). Padre Diniz tells the story — in which he appears in one of three identities, because he, among others, has had a checkered career. Joáo retells the stories throughout in a puppet theater, which serves as a transitional device between tales. But it gets crazier. Another key character has multiple identities. A heavy hired to kill Angela’s lover later appears as a man called Alberto de Magalhães (Ricardo Pereira) who’s gotten rich in Brazil in the slave trade. Later the focus is at times on Pedro/João, (played by Alfonso Pimentel as a young adult), or on the French noblewoman Elisa de Montfort (Clotilde Hesme), or Magalhães, or Padre Diniz in another of his manifestations. Why all these shifts? Hard to say.
Ruiz, the gifted and original 69-year-old Chilean filmmaker who rose to prominence in the 1980’s and lives in France, was seriously unwell when this film was undertaken and seemed on the verge of dying of liver cancer; surgery has since saved his life. It was producer Paulo Branco who originally conceived the project of turning Castelo Branco’s pulpy but absorbing three volumes into a movie. Ruiz didn’t initially see how to do it, but screenwriter Carlos Saboga very quickly turned out a screenplay and the project got under way. Ruiz is clearly at home with the endless whirlwind of love tales. Whether anybody at work on the project knew how the plot fit together any better then Hawks, Faulkner, and company did when they made The Big Sleep is unknown. The beauty of the images and the constant rhythm of the action and scenes are evidently vintage Ruiz, but whether this film holds its own against the director’s Time Regained is uncertain. The film is in French as well as Portuguese and some well-known French actors are invloved — Clotilde Hesme, Malik Zidi, Melvil Poupaud, and Léa Seydoux, as well as relative newcomer Julien Alluguette.
Mysteries of Lisbon is frustrating. It is too beautiful not to watch on a big screen, but it is likely to make more sense on DVD. In many ways it is like any classy European costume mini-series, and at the same time both more and less. It has the mark of an auteur’s unique vision, his fascination for circular, swirling storytelling and enchanting tableaux, and in that sense it is special. It has the bustling scenes, handsome costumes, international cast of a RAI or Canal+ product — but it lacks the essential chronological coherence. One can tell which century one’s in, but one can’t always remember why.
If dauntingly long watches are going to be a fixture of film festivals, where do we stop? Why wasn’t the first season of “The Wire” presented at a film festival? But that would be as hard to take in during a 4-and-half hour sit as this, and as in need of a good cheat-sheet to follow the first time through. Mysteries of Lisbon bears some similarity to Catherine Breillat’s Last Mistress, also a story of amour fou from a novel that straddles (more clearly) the leap between the 18th and 19th centuries. Ruiz’s film may be a masterpiece in festival terms, but for the ordinary art house viewer, Breillat’s is more accessible and considerably more fun.
Mysteries of Lisbon is included in the Toronto, New York, Vancouver, Vienna, Torino and London film festivals, and is scheduled for theatrical release in France and Portugal Oct. 20 and 21. Seen and reviewed as part of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, shown to the public there Oct. 10. Shown at the London Film Festival Oct. 23.
DIRECTOR: RAÚL RUIZ
WRITER: CAMILO CASTELLO BRANCO (BOOK), CARLOS SABOGA (SCREENPLAY)
CAST: JOÃO LUIS ARRAIS, LÉA SEYDOUX, MELVIL POUPAUD, CLOTILDE HESME