Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz, 2011)

Shot with oil-on-canvas-toned cinematography and dovetailing into so many random narrative threads that Laurence Sterne might have expressed his approval, Raúl Ruiz's epic, penultimate completed feature Mysteries of Lisbon scarcely looks like the usual period costume drama. Instead of the director falling back to let the art design do all the work, Ruiz makes his camera the most visible and alluring aspect of the whole production. His direction moves in pendulous swings, oscillating back and forth between conflicting perspective, truth and fiction, past and present (if a present even exists), all within the same elegant long take.

Having previously seen but one other Ruiz film, I am sorry to say I cannot comment on how much of the filmmaker's tics and themes are reflected in the gargantuan adaptation of Camilo Castelo Branco's novel. And as the book itself does not seem to have an English translation, I cannot even say whether the oddities contained herein are those of the author or the director. Nevertheless, the film—actually edited down to its four-and-a-half-hour running length from a six-hour miniseries—certainly feels like a summation, and I could easily spot structural and stylistic similarities between this and Three Crowns of the Sailor: idiosyncratic, rhythmically arrhythmic editing patterns; unorthodox shot placement; and a narrative style that hinges on a constant intrusion by a new voice who seizes the reins to tell his own story that sends any hint of plot consistency out the window.

Beginning as a bildungsroman, Mysteries of Lisbon charts the reminiscences of Pedro da Silva, whom we meet as Joao in a religious school. But when the "orphan's" mother, a destitute countess with a tragic past arrives to meet her abandoned son, the film sets in motion its relay race structure, constantly moving to new narrators, new recollections, new adventures. After flashbacks uncover Angela's doomed romance and her subsequent marriage to a horrifically abusive count, we see the countess retreating into a convent after the man's deathbed repentance, depriving Joao of the parent he only just discovered. But then, she's already deprived him of his own story, and he won't get it back until the last hour of the film, at which point he appears as an adult with a different name, so that it takes a few of his final section just to recognize him.

Rather than simply chart Pedro/Joao's life, the film instead heads down various rabbit holes, with characters gliding into frame to announce they have a story to tell as Ruiz accommodates them like a polite person who cannot bring himself to protest the intrusions. These incessant diversions generally revolve around the same basic plots of tragic romances leading to death and lifelong misery, of constantly reversing fortunes, and of bitter retreats into the oblivion afforded by monasteries and nunneries, where religion can shield one from this awful world.

This has the effect of making the narrative cyclical even as it gaily bounces around time and subject. The recurring tidbit of scandalous pre-marital affairs leading to bastard children suggests that everyone in the European nobility is illegitimate, a potential commentary exacerbated by the fact that all of them live a lavish lifestyle yet are utterly broke. Ruiz's treatment of organized Christianity, shown to be a force of mental oblivion, is more ambiguous: does its sheltering protection offer some modicum of peace for these troubled souls, or is it merely a means of ignoring oneself?

Yet the film's true themes work on a more intimate level, and Ruiz ties them to his camerawork. André Szankowski's cinematography renders the Romantic absurdist tales of duels, disguises and despair with faded, naturalistic (though clearly artificial) chiaroscuro, muting the sense of adventurousness with a more tangible empathy. Mysteries of Lisbon, despite its remove and careful construction, feels for its characters, moving beyond any statement on European history to closer examine the ideas of Romanticism. Passionate romance never succeeds, and babies are often left without either of their parents as the survivor cannot bear the reminder of lost love. Some of the characters openly link their lack of parentage with a lack of national identity—the film is primarily set in the confusion of post-Napoleonic Europe—but it's the unending personal loss that affects these characters. That's true even in more ridiculous circumstances, such as Elisa, the jilted countess who manipulates the adult Pedro into avenging her honor for the one man who got the better of her in her series of games. Even this woman, who has so casually toyed with so many, can feel when hints of amorousness are not reciprocated.

Nevertheless, what truly marks Mysteries of Lisbon is its playfulness. Ruiz will film a dialogue is just about every way except for the pat use of shot/reverse shot close-ups. His off-kilter framing breaks up the naturalism and makes each shot a sumptuous, occasionally surrealist treat. One scene of dialogue occurs in a long take as two men sit before a gigantic fresco, the camera pulled back to soak in the painting, which clearly matters as much to the scene's layout, if not more, than the important conversation being had in front of it. Elsewhere, a close-up on a coffee cup shows a man's reflection rocking back and forth in the disturbed liquid, only for Ruiz to then layer in a shot of the cup itself over another frame as if the glass of the camera lens is reflecting it. The director also frequently inserts shots of Joao/Pedro's diorama of a theater throughout, the cut-outs matching the action to add new perspectives on what is happening, and also to suggest that the whole thing might be a put-on.

That feeling is only exacerbated by other narrative points.. As the narrative pushes further and further away from Pedro, one last glimpse of the boy as a child shows him stumbling into a forbidden room at Father Dinis' college that reveals the priest to be the master key of the film, his collection of disguises linking him to all the filmed exploits in some form or fashion. And when everything winds down with a reflective Pedro at the end, the unreliable narrator reaches the peak of his ambiguity, leaving the audience wondering if anything shown has been remotely true. But that is a trivial issue, for Ruiz's ever-expanding   story is deliberately, giddily about its own construction and artificiality, from the foreshadowing tiles over which the opening credits are placed to the way in which dead characters can casually return in the flesh in order to play new roles in other vignettes. Ruiz, who defied doctor's orders to make this film, injects himself and his touches into the work as much as a fearless writer makes the style of literature as important as the content, if not more so. Some may dismiss this as indulgence, but when the results are a magical and, for a 266-minute feature, as fleet-footed, cinema could use more of this kind of self-servitude.


  1. It looks like an interesting movie to me. Thank you for your comment, I will watch it.