What a strange four-and-a-half hour film! It resembles Dickens, but without the flamboyant, larger-than-life characters; Austen, but without the wit or the good cheer; Proust, in its labyrinthine regressions into memory; Charlotte Bronte in its depiction of doleful and imprisoned women; and Galdos, Pio Baroja, or any other nineteenth-century Spanish novelist with its priests, pirates, and gypsies.
In fact, the film’s director, Raúl Ruiz, hails from Chile, and the tale on which the film is based is by a Portuguese novelist, Camilo Ferreira Botelho Castelo-Branco,1st Viscount de Correia Botelho, who died in 1890. Branco is said to have written more than 260 books during his career. One critic has observed that Branco’s writing combines “the dramatic and sentimental spirit of Romanticism with … a highly personal combination of sarcasm, bitterness and dark humor.”
Indeed, an atmosphere of gloom and dread, reckless passion and world-weary piety hangs over the action of The Mysteries of Lisbon, which amounts largely to people visiting one another in their gorgeous and rundown country estates or their elegant urban parlors to swap hitherto untold stories about the deep past, stir the cinders of spent passion, or plan routes of escape from their diabolical spouses, invariably male.
At the center of the drama is a boy of fifteen, João, who has no stories. He doesn’t know who his parents are, or where he came from. In the course of the film he finds out a good deal about who he is, and how cruel people can sometimes be to one another.
As the layers of narrative build up, it sometimes becomes difficult to remember which generation we’re dealing with, and a Hundred-Years-of-Solitude-esque mystique begins to envelop the action. I suppose it may have been unwise to watch the film in two parts on successive nights. But after all, a longer version was originally broadcast on European television in six episodes.
It might also have been better to see the film in the theater, I suppose. The camera movement is fluid and the lighting and shot composition are exquisite. It strikes me in retrospect that the effort Ruiz spent planning the character movement of even a single scene probably rivals U.S. Grant’s plotting of the Bayou Campaign against Vicksburg. In fact, I suspect the film has many technical virtues that lie beyond my capacity to notice, much less articulate.
One enthusiast wrote:
“In Mysteries of Lisbon, Ruiz's fluid camera work principally serves his fluid progression of stories, their next-to infinite regression, with re-framings in all but a handful of examples accomplished within rather than without the camera and figure movement universally recapitulated in the visual field through its tight figural identification - moored to his stories' many tellers. The director's long-shot, long-take work also affords for the re-introduction of The Three Crowns of the Sailor's aggressively planar, baroque compositions, at times inorganic and at others not, with servers, in their organic usage, adopting foreground positions where they will overhear the gossip, in the frame's recesses, that will lead to the masters' ceaseless miseries.”
I think the film would have been better had Ruiz paid more attention to fewer characters, allowing us to get to know (and perhaps occasionally even like) them better. Yet in the end, The Mysteries of Lisbon is well worth watching. It has an atmosphere like no other film I’ve seen, and it ranks right at the top in terms of hand-painted wallpaper.
At the same time, it reminded me of another six-part TV show set during the same era that I really ought to see again, The Charterhouse of Parma (1982).