Directed by: Raúl Ruiz.
Written by: Carlos Saboga based on the novel by Camilo Castelo Branco.
Starring: Adriano Luz (Padre Dinis & Sabino Cabra & Sebastião de Melo), Maria João Bastos (Ângela de Lima), Ricardo Pereira (Alberto de Magalhães & Come-Facas), lotilde Hesme (Elisa de Montfort), José Afonso Pimentel (Pedro da Silva Adult), João Arrais (Pedro da Silva Criança), Albano Jerónimo(Conde de Santa Bárbara), João Baptista (D. Pedro da Silva) Martin Loizillon (Padre Dinis Jovem), Julien Alluguette (Benoit), Rui Morrison (Marquês de Montezelos), Joana de Verona (Eugénia).
Raul Ruiz’s epic Mysteries of Lisbon is a four hour film (cut down from a six hour TV version) with shifting narratives. There is hardly a character in the movie that doesn’t go by at least two different names at some point in the movie, and eventually, nearly all of them will sit down with someone to tell their story. This isn’t a typical narrative that goes from Point A to Point B to Point C, but an elaborate set of interlocking stories that inform and enrich each other. The film is at times confusing – I got lost in the plot several times, not being quite sure what character was at the heart of any given scene or how they related to the overall plot, but it hardly matters. These characters come and go from the narrative, and eventually, you end up piecing it all together (although please don’t ask me to explain it all).
If there is a central character in the movie it is Pedro da Silva, although when we first meet him, he is an orphan known only as Joao. He is being raised at a school by Father Dinis, who has lead a much more colourful life than you would expect a Priest to have. It is the 1800s in Portugual and Joao is being made fun of because he doesn’t have a last name – so he must be a bastard. Not so explains Dinis, who will launch into the first of many stories in the film, as he tells the story of Joao’s artisocratic mother, who fell in love with the second son of a rich man (which means he’s poor, because the first born get everything), and then is forced to marry someone else, although the first man is Joao’s father. He is shot and killed, but his mother is still alive – being held captive by her abusive husband. But, Joao is assured, she has always loved him. And thus, we begin a movie that will weave one story after another, where nothing at first seems connected, because in flashbacks, characters don’t have the same name as they do know. This is a movie where nearly everyone will remake himself into something greater than he is, or else become so heartbroken that they enter the Priesthood or become a monk. We are introduced to all sorts of people – high class and low class, criminals, artisocrats, nobility from across Europe, men who wish to poessess the women they claim to put on a high pedestool, and the beautiful women themselves. No one ever seems to end up with the person they are love with – no ones plans come together quite the way they thought they would. Which is why, again and again, they sit another character in the movie down and explain to them that they simply must know the story they are about to tell.
Mysteries of Lisbon is melodrama on a grand scale. The costume design and art direction are meticulous, and Ruiz’s camera is constantly moving. This is a movie where everyone seems to be eavesdropping on everyone else, and much of Ruiz’s camera work gives the sense that we, as the audience, are eavesdropping as well. Yes the movie is very long – and the plot lost me at some points because of all the shifting identities, but strangely, I was involved in every moment of the film. After a certain point, I just became confident that Ruiz would eventually connect the dots – and he does. There are several moments in the film when you realize with surprise that the character you’ve been following in a story thread is actually the same character you met an hour ago in a different one. It is a strange film to be sure, but one that is never less than involving.