A splendid parting shot
Chilean director Raúl Ruiz’s final film is an immersive, captivating delight, writes Tara Brady
THE CHILEAN master Raúl Ruiz, who died in August, never received the distribution he deserved in these territories. A decade ago, Time Regained, the best cinematic treatment of Proust, and Comedy of Innocence, a magnificent surrealist puzzler, secured limited releases and picked up good notices. Since then, his films have struggled to find space in Anglophone cinemas.
The arrival of Ruiz’s splendid Portuguese epic Mysteries of Lisbon should, therefore, be greeted with some class of parade. Clocking in at a colossal four and a half hours (no, not a misprint) the film sounds like
something of an endurance test. Certainly, those of you with peanut bladders should, perhaps, think twice before setting aside the afternoon. But it proves to be an immersive, captivating delight.
As packed with intriguing characters as a Dickens novel, peppered with neat little avantgarde touches, Mysteries of Lisbon sweeps across the viewer in a wave of quiet, Christmas-appropriate opulence. If you have nine hours to spare, you might want to watch it twice.
The film is based on a novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, which has about as much resonance in English-speaking parts as the film-maker’s oeuvre. The plot, which features endless wheels within wheels, centres on the mysteries surrounding the conception of young Pedro (played by João Luis Arrais, then Afonso Pimentel).
As the movie begins, Pedro is living in an orphanage under the care of a thoughtful priest. One day he is taken to visit the house where – we quickly deduce – his mother lives. She stares spookily out the window as a man storms across the lawn and demands that the boy and priest go elsewhere.
This is not the young fellow’s father. It transpires that Pedro is the issue of a melodramatically tragic love match. His mother fell for a young man whom her father regarded as unsuitable. She was sent off to have the baby in secret, but a plan had been hatched – involving a wonderfully sinister bandit – to have the baby murdered. And so on.
Unfolding through a series of flashbacks, the complex literary narrative gradually knits together into a hugely satisfactory whole. At times, the film has the thoughtfulness of Balzac. At others, one thinks of the flashy narrative flourishes that colour the works of Alexandre Dumas.
Keeping all this in mind, it’s not altogether surprising to hear that Mysteries of Lisbon had a former life as a television series. But, like Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, another mighty epic that straddled the two media, Mysteries of Lisbon could not seem more comfortable on the big screen.
As in Time Regained, Ruiz utilises camera moves of such singular fluidity that the viewer might be drifting along in a hot-air balloon. When a man offers a final confession, the image moves steadily from his head to his feet. Characters are followed from room to room in continuous shots that care not for the physical presence of walls.
Ruiz also exhibits a taste for structuring the action in a manner that hints at surrealism. A furore in a public place, carried off outside the frame, has a disconcerting effect on the occupants of a carriage. A vision of Pedro’s mother stirs up a trippy, psychedelic surge.
As readers of Proust and Pynchon frequently attest (loudly and in crowded places where possible), when one gets through a genuinely ginormous work the temptation is, for fear of acknowledging too much time wasted, to over-praise the weighty, groaning beast. Crowing about endurance is an added bonus. (Did we mention the four-and-a-half hour running time already?)
In this case, however, the combination of thumping, soapy narrative and dreamlike tableaux in Mysteries of Lisbon makes for a fine parting shot from both Raúl Ruiz and 2011. Movie of the month and then some.
Orphan of the storm: the young Pedro in Mysteries of Lisbon