Film review: Mysteries of Lisbon (MFF 2011)

Mysteries of Lisbon
Mistérios de Lisboa
Clap Filmes

STARRING João Baptista, José Afonso Pimentel, Adriano Luz, Maria João Bastos, Albano Jeronimo, Filipe Vargas, Clotilde Hesme, Melvil Poupaud, Léa Seydoux, Ricardo Pereira, Miguel Monteiro
WRITTEN BY Carlos Saboga, based on Os Mistérios de Lisboa by Camilo Castelo Branco
PRODUCED BY Paulo Branco

SHOT BY André Szankowski
EDITED BY Carlos Madaleno, Valeria Sarmiento
MUSIC BY Jorge Arriagada, Luís Freitas Branco

Screened at the 2011 Milwaukee Film Festival

“The Neverending Stories”

Mistérios de Lisboa was adapted by the recently deceased filmmaker Raúl Ruiz into a serial shown on Portuguese television. The film – over 4.5 hours long – is perhaps a bit much for one sitting. In the early 1800’s, we follow João from childhood to young manhood, beginning as an orphan and traveling through a dense swath of players and their intimate flashbacks until a lugubrious and melodramatic coat of arms has been illuminated around our largely silent protagonist and his catalyzing revealer, Padre Dinis (Adriano Luz). Detailing the minutiae beyond this is, I must say, difficult in the face of such a cumbersome narrative, but each half of the film focuses on a woman at the mercy of her passions and the men who exploit them: João’s true mother (winsome and longing Maria João Bastos) and what brought her to abandon the boy, and a sensuous self-destructive creature (who motivates half the film’s men) called Elisa de Montfort played by the captivating Clotilde Hesme. One by one, Padre Dinis travels through our cast and with each enters into an elaborate historical anecdote. We finally rope back around to João, now played by an older actor (João Baptista) and sporting a new name, and conclude his earthly entanglements and his submission to the invincible march of time.

I left the film feeling affected by the ending but convinced that, with the film’s emotional bookends, any number of dramatic hodgepodges could’ve been inserted into the central four hours and would’ve created the same feeling. I am convinced, you see, that the longer any narrative is made to be, the more potential exists for emotional impact with the audience, simply because of the time we’ve spent with those fictional proxies and, more importantly, how much of our own energy has been dedicated to them (this helps to explain the success of televised serials whose content is not extraordinary and the most successful film franchises, a few of which, Harry Potter & LOTR, have tomes of supplementary printed material. Brilliant). So if you begin a film with a character as a child, take us through his life, and end with a death, as long as the content isn’t downright counterproductive, any sensitive viewer will be set up to feel that melancholy that accompanies the resignation before the fates.

It helps that Ruiz crafts an impeccable mise-en-scène, is clearly getting exactly what he wants from the product and is a very caring director (oh, and excellent paintings can be seen dotting the walls almost everywhere). The craft, yes, is impeccable if not overly inventive – in fact I’d say his choices are rather conventional, as auteur-work goes: a reverse zoom here, a 90 degree tilt there, the walking-dollying-”float” trick which Spike Lee claimed for a trademark twenty years ago… and each sparingly utilized in a casually paced über-narrative which was in sore need of dynamism. I won’t exaggerate when I say that every single scene is played out in lingering, literary long-shots, happily giving the viewer the distance to carefully observe the patterns of silly humans, but unhappily creating a monotony which begs to be evolved. There is no cutting on emotion – and personally, little-to-no emotional engagement beyond melancholy, resignation. It’s as if the director has no Passion-with-a-capital-P of his own but observes that the aesthetic world functions as a result of the Passionate. Then it ends and I teared up because I’d spent four hours with this confused boy and then he died. Who wouldn’t?

And to retread my steps just a trifle, I feel it’s important to note that Part 1 (2.25 hours) had the audience just fine, but into Part 2 (after intermission), those languid long shots began making the audience actually laugh. Yet another character would preface yet another Crouching Tiger-length flashback with “Ah, yes, it’s a long, circuitous story… let me tell you…” and the audience would laugh. “Oh, god.. here we go again!” Despite this, the film’s reviews are largely and impressively positive – after all, what kind of person would feel comfortable criticizing a veteran auteur’s earnest magnum opus? One as yet uninitiated to Mr. Ruiz’s catalogue, I think.

written by David Ashley