A splen­did part­ing shot

Chilean di­rec­tor Raúl Ruiz’s fi­nal film is an im­mer­sive, cap­ti­vat­ing de­light, writes Tara Brady

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Reviews -

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

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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

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