A formal marvel carved from, and around, a narrative whopper, Raul Ruiz's adaptation of the mid-19th century Portuguese novel "Mysteries of Lisbon" arrives in U.S. theaters as a two-part, four-hour version edited down from a six-hour version produced for European television.
It's a lot. But if you're at all inclined, it's just right.
The prolific Chilean director died earlier this year at age 70. Throughout the machinations of "Mysteries of Lisbon," adapted from Camilo Castelo Branco's three-volume soap opera, the cold hand of fate knocks on the door of coincidence in a way that causes a click of amusement inside your brain (mine, anyway), no matter how dire the circumstance.
As Ruiz wrote: The characters "enter and leave the narrative system that Camilo proposes, get entangled in their own maze, relating improbable facts that you end up doubting." He added: "The storm of misadventures, which the three volumes is made of, is never followed by a ray of light."
And yet the results are strangely buoyant. An Oliver Twist dilemma guides the tale of the orphaned Pedro da Silva, played by Joao Luis Arrais as a child and Afonso Pimentel as a young man. He seeks the truth about his parentage, his history, his destiny. The boy's protector, Father Dinis (Adriano Luz, calm concern personified), harbors a thicket of secrets himself. The boy's mother, it is soon revealed, is the Countess of Santa Barbara, hidden away from the world by her husband. Yet the husband isn't what he appears to be. No one is.
Each new character's penchant for spinning the story of her or his life re-routes "Mysteries of Lisbon" until the next flashback is tapped into motion. Betrayals, lifelong grudges, the low-born transforming themselves into arrogant rich sots: It's a heady experience. "In life," we hear at one point, "there are events and coincidences of such extravagance that no novelist would ever dare to invent them." Shakespeare pulled that sort of thing all the time in his later works, and Ruiz — who completed one final project following "Mysteries of Lisbon" — is well aware of what it sounds like when a monk murmurs to his visitor: "I have a long story to tell you…I've never told it to anyone." You smile at the contrivance; you're already in the river of the overall experience, floating contentedly.
Ruiz and his young Brazilian-born cinematographer Andre Szankowski create their world of Portugal, France and other lands shooting digitally, in candlelight and natural light and wonderfully rich chiaroscuro images. Ruiz is no hands-off classicist, however (if he were, all that painterly business would dry out after an hour). A key character's toy theater serves as the guiding metaphor for the story's patent artifice. Often we see cut-out characters inside the theater reenacting scenes we've just watched visually; the idea isn't new, but it's beautifully rendered, as are Ruiz's witty and surprising camera angles — a torn-up letter is shown from beneath a pane of glass, beneath the characters' feet — and the ever-pivoting, gradually shifting visual perspective. Half the intrigue afoot in "Mysteries of Lisbon" takes place between noblemen and noblewomen while their servants lurk behind a door, or merely stand at attention. The long, languorous takes frequently sustain a minute or more of interaction and subtle choreography. Everything is slightly italicized. No one performance leaps out of the overall tapestry.
But there are human beings caught in the melodrama. Even if you struggle to remember who's who and what's what, the pulse is there. One character is described as being "as weak as every woman who fights two powerful enemies: the indifference of her husband, and the most loving warmth of desire." The overall effect of Ruiz's film may be that of rigorous, wryly observed control. But what it observes is life in the form of a deeply improbable three-volume novel, which is both lifelike and its own form of purest artifice.
'Mysteries of Lisbon' -- 3 1/2 stars
No MPAA rating (some violence)
Cast: Adriano Luz (Father Dinis); Maria Joao Bastos (Angela de Lima); Ricardo Pereira (Alberto); Clotilde Hesme (Elisa); Afonso Pimentel (Pedro)
Credits: Directed by Raul Ruiz; written by Carlos Saboga, based on the novel by Camilo Castelo Branco; produced by Paulo Branco. A Music Box Films release. Running time: 4:27. In Portuguese and French with English subtitles. Playing exclusively at the Music Box Theatre.