Mysteries of Lisbon: Film Review

A superbly guilty pleasure for a rainy day.

"Mysteries of Lisbon" takes the viewer on an imaginative voyage that is at once literary, theatrical and cinematic.

SAN SEBASTIAN -- A mammoth, culminating work in the 37-year career of Chilean director Raul Ruiz, its over four-hour theatrical running time unfortunately will stop many from taking the plunge into early 19th century Portugal, a romantic world of noblemen and beautiful ladies caught up in a fatal dance of love and social conventions.

Beyond its carnet of prestige festival dates, which include Toronto, San Sebastian, New York and London, and select art house screenings, the film will find its biggest audiences in a 6-hour TV miniseries format.

Ruiz's last and very successful foray into the literary canon was his 1999 Marcel Proust's Time Regained, which this adaptation of Portuguese writer Camilo Castelo Branco's novel, written in 1854, in many ways resembles. The theme of memory and intertwined, seemingly endless stories about high society sexual intrigue are common to both films, as well as a sense of the unlimited complexity of life seen through the observant eyes of a great writer.

Here, however, there is no big-name cast to pull audiences into theaters, nor a story anyone knows. Castelo Branco, as prolific in his day as Ruiz has been in his, is no Proust and the film consequently lacks great moments of artistic and personal revelation. What is left is the sheer joy of storytelling, and willing audiences will find themselves caught up in a what-happens-next page-turner of a film.

Produced by Paulo Branco, who also made Time Regained and many of Manoel de Oliveira's auteur costumers (another reference point), the film was interrupted by Ruiz's struggle with liver cancer, from which he miraculously recovered to finish the shooting. The disjointed quality of the narrative perhaps can be laid to production difficulties, though the nature of Castelo Branco's novel is intrinsically confusing.

Adding to the difficulty of remembering a long cast of characters, who fade in and out of the story, is the fact that many of them change identities in the course of the film and turn up with new names and new actors playing the role. More than a suspension of disbelief, the film often calls for a suspension of comprehension. But even that hurdle can be leapt.

The narrative unfolds as nested stories-within-a-story whose central character is the young nobleman Pedro da Silva. He starts life as a boy (Joao Luiz Arrais) with no name, raised in a boarding school by the good Father Dinis (Adriano Luz), a worldly-wise man who gradually tells him he's the illegitimate son of the Countess of Santa Barbara (Maria Joao Bastos.)

She lives as a virtual prisoner in the sinister castle of her sadistic husband (Albano Jeronimo), whom she has been forced to marry instead of the poor nobleman she loved, Pedro's father.

This is just the first part of the first story, which gets even more complicated as more and more back stories are interwoven. Characters return in totally unexpected guises, cutthroats become noblemen and noblemen beggars. Viewers gifted with excellent memories will discover that all the tales are tied together in the end.

Ruiz clearly enjoys playing with his characters and often compares them to theater puppets. Throughout the film he emphasizes the presence of servants eavesdropping on their masters' most intimate conversations, like spectators in the theater or the film audience itself. And it is a child's theater set that Pedro carries with him wherever he goes, even to the ends of the earth in the melancholy, haunting finale.

The stories revolve around extramarital liasons, social hypocrisy and convention against which the women characters, in particular, rebel before being shot down by their fathers, husbands and society. In the final story, which remains the most vivid and Proustian, Pedro has grown into a callow, idealistic youth (Joao Baptista/Joao Afonso Pimental) who allows himself to become ensnared by the beautiful Elisa de Monfort (Clotilde Hesme.) She tries to use him as a pawn to revenge herself on handsome Brazilian rake Alberto de Magalhaes, her ex-lover, not realizing the ties that bind the two men.

Carlos Saboga's dialogue mimics the purple prose of 19th century Romantic novels, making for performances that are more Gothic than realistic, yet still more naturalistic than in an Oliveira film. Andre Szankowski's sumptuous cinematography works with Isabel Branco's aristocratic set design to capture the aesthetics of the Napoleonic era, particularly in the magnificent frescoed interiors of the age, which recount still other dramas.

Venue: San Sebastian Film Festival (In Competition)
Production company: Clap Filmes
Cast: Joao Baptista, Jose Afonso Pimentel, Adriano Luz, Maria Joao Bastos, Albano Jeronimo, Filipe Vargas, Clotilde Hesme, Melvil Poupaud, Lea Seydoux, Ricardo Pereira, Miguel Monteiro.
Director: Raul Ruiz
Screenwriter: Carlos Saboga, based on the novel by Camilo Castelo Branco
Producer: Paulo Branco
Director of photography: Andre Szankowski
Production designer: Isabel Branco
Music: Jorge Arriagada, Luis de Freitas Branco
Costumes: Tania Franco
Editor: Valeria Sarmiento, Carlos Madaleno
Sales Agent: Alfama Films
No rating, 256 minutes