Mysteries of Lisbon
Directed by Raul Ruiz
"For years I have dreamed of filming events that could move from one dimension into another, and that could be broken down into images occupying different dimensions, all with the sole aim of being able to add, multiply, or divide them, and reconstitute them at will. If one accepts that each figure can be reduced to a group of points ...and that from this group of points, figures can be generated in two, three, or n dimensions, it is then equally acceptable that adding or subtracting dimensions can change the logic of an image and therefore its expressivity." —Raul Ruiz, Poetics of Cinema
It's not hard to understand why the latest film from Raul Ruiz, who once worked as a soap opera scenarist, runs to four-plus hours (down from the six-hour version for French television). One even wonders why it took the prolific director until 1999, with Time Regained, to exult in Proust's gratifyingly paranoid elaborations on sense and memory. Chilean exile Ruiz seems to rebel constitutionally against the confinement of the single story line, the cul-de-sac conclusion, the lonely point of reference. And so where Time Regained opened up and chased down multiple lines of sight on the past, or where 20 years earlier Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting made a playful Greenaway-esque conspiracy out of interpreting tableaux, the foundling story of Mysteries of Lisbon confronts the multiple trapdoors of origins and identity.
Working from a capacious 19th-century work by Portuguese author Camilo Castelo Branco, Ruiz traces back the daisy-chains of scandal and secret linked to Pedro, seen early on as a boy allowed only to watch his mother from afar. The dominant activity in the even-keeled drama (more than the occasional duel or ballroom snipe) is... the recounting of dramas, as they spin off from the invisible-hand shape-shifting of padre-with-a-past Father Dinis (quietly playful Adriano Luz), the cruelties and ladykilling of Brazilian scoundrel Alberto de Magalhes (imperious Ricardo Pereira), the magnetic vanity of Countess Elisa de Montfort (Clotilde Hesme). The sprawling drawing rooms are playgrounds for Ruiz's hovering camera, at times disappearing ‘round corners or through walls, in perpetual visualization of the story as something to be explored rather than laid down in train-car succession. A childhood diorama of Pedro's stands in at times as a chapter heading; a skull appears on a clock as memento mori to fleeting existence.
The rude question, to open one more door, is: how interesting is this to watch? (And has Ruiz's vaunted hundredstrong oeuvre slowly become more of a handy rhetorical figure than an actually experienced body of work?) If the good-humored storytelling of Mysteries of Lisbon holds a waning attraction—as one critic said of earlier Ruiz sagas, "the upside to this method is that it delivers Scheherazadian storytelling of limitless, playful variation; the downside is that we stop caring..."—then the most piercing moment comes at its very end, when the true, crushing extent of Pedro's journey is understood. But that's one long journey for us (that at times feels as if it could recursively expand indefinitely), and perhaps the most compelling aspect lies nested deeper still: a globe-trotting vision of the foundling tale as a fantasy undermining the hallowed lineage of aristocracy while enjoying the entertaining spectacle of its spoils.
Opens August 5
The shortest 272-minute movie you'll ever see (not a compliment).
Oct 10, 2010