The gravitas of the first half of this four and a half hour epic, directed by Raul Ruiz with a magnificent combination of restraint and spectacle, evolves into an exhaustive, wry exploration into investigating origins. A kind priest with wrinkled grids of life etched on his face, and who admits he cannot resist a provocative mystery, is a stand-in detective, like a Columbo for matters of the heart. Partially motivated by his own genesis (born from a sordid and romantic union), he helps a little boy without a surname find out who he is, or where he is from, and whether or not those are the same question in two different forms.
Though I admit a particular softspot for overlong, soap-operatic epics (especially w/ great costumes—and the billowy sleeves layered with grey linen smocks may be the most inspirationally offbeat thing in this film), the relationships between all the characters and how they relate to the themes of the film itself—despite the self-reflexive and humorous approach to this attempted omniscience—are too graphically drawn for my tastes. A film of this length should be a little more of a mess; I expect unresolved subplots and dissonant bit players (like the James Dean and Dennis Hopper characters in Giant, for instance.)
Michael Atkinson wrote this of long films in a review of Bela Tarr’s Satantango:
They are not efficiently manufactured and absorbed artworks so much as life events, subject to accident, ambiguity, boredom, anticipation, empathy, resentment, dissipation, meditation, epiphany. Lifestuff accumulates with the hours, so we are forced to regard the movie as a real-time event that may, indeed, have no end. (Once a movie passes the 200-minute mark, it might as well not have an ending, which was in effect the point of time-bandits Andy Warhol and Jacques Rivette).
Once that 200min mark is crossed (Mysteries of Lisbon is 272 min) one stops expecting resolution. It becomes like a ceiling fresco in which there is a beginning but no end, and no sense comprehending what is inside and outside of the frame; one’s eyes skip around the edges of all four walls without a cohesive sense of plot or conclusion. In contrast, Ruiz is such a masterful filmmaker that he directs the eyes exactly where he wants them to go, losing some of the texture and spontaneity that a typical long film offers. He manages the viewer’s experience with plot, characters, theme and even manages this experience within a shot. Occasionally Ruiz uses some sort of digital tool* so that characters in the foreground and the background are both in focus while the middle distance is a blur. (With strictly cinematic tools, either part of the frame would have been in focus while the rest was a blur or, in the depth-of-field favored by directors like Orson Welles and Wes Anderson, the entire screen would have been in sharp focus, encouraging the eye to travel all over the frame.) Ruiz is a film maestro who in this film leads his viewer’s eyes with specific, though rich, intentions.
*Note: Despite this comment, Ruiz gets credit for his use of digital in this film. He has solved the problem of greens in outdoor light, which always turn an unnatural neon algae color in most digital filming, by filming them either exceptionally overlight or overdark, producing not only beautiful shades of pale and dark green but an eerie, fairy tale feeling throughout.