Mysteries of Lisbon premiered at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, but it’s getting its Canadian theatrical in what’s best described as the international theatrical cut, a 4 hour version edited down from a 6 part TV mini-series, which tends to be a mixed blessing when it’s a highly complex drama with interweaving storylines and multiple characters.
The main anchor in this epic tale of truth & consequences is young Pedro, a bastard child dumped into an orphanage at an early age. Recovering from a nasty fever, he’s suddenly confronted with a benevolent woman who claims she’s his mother, Angela de Lima (stunning Maria Joao Bastos), the poor daughter of a manipulative nobleman who arranged / forced / coerced marriage to an abusive playboy - The Count of Santa Barbara (Albano Jeronimo) - soon after she declared her love for a decent but poor man.
Pedro’s biological father was murdered days after his birth, and perhaps sensing the dire nature of Angela’s new situation - knowledge of her love child Pedro has intensified the Count's cruelties - the orphanage’s administrator, Padre Diniz (Adriano Luz), arranges an escape. Living at the orphanage with her son, Angela and Pedro are able to enjoy a semblance of family - but it is fleeting.
Naturally, Pedro's life must undergo further upheaval, and over the course of its massive running time, Mysteries goes through extended montages of cause & effect storylines where the cruelty of one character shapes another, refracts against a second, and rebounds back to the first, years later – particularly the beautifully malevolent Alberto (Ricardo Pereira), kind of self-made Count of Monte Cristo.
The general truncation of material from the original TV version doesn’t affect the integrity of the character arcs per se – Pedro’s early scenes show some seams, notably in sudden music fadeouts – but transitional devices such as Pedro’s paper diorama appear erratically, and the constant revelation of backstories becomes unintentionally amusing.
Flashbacks and tangential anecdotes that spawn from ‘I have a story to tell you’ moments probably yielded less amusement from audiences when they were spread over six episodes (each flashback is also scored with the same lilting, tragic theme, enhancing the sense of one too many recollections), but then Raoul Ruiz’ film gradually turns into a darkly satirical drama along the lines of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon [M] (1975); neither Pedro nor Alberto are womanizing arses, but the seething contempt which upper class characters have for each other establishes a distinct portrait of a horribly selfish and corrupt society where even good souls are tormented, and bad souls are redeemed if they convalesce in a convent or monastery for a while.
Mysteries has plenty of grey dramatic terrain to balance out the horrible tragedies with dark satire, but once Angela leaves the narrative, an adolescent Pedro (Joao Arrais) just isn’t as interesting on his own, and the final hour begins to heavily sag as he falls for a vile French woman who uses various men to exact an ongoing assassination plot.
The complexities get absurd, and Ruiz perhaps forces one too many false endings before Pedro’s drama wraps up in a cheat ending, but it is a sumptuous production that steadily maintains the illusion of peeking into the rotten, snotty lives of souls out to avenge themselves for social injustice. Anger festers, passions heave (as do plenty of bosoms), and no one’s innocent of some impropriety.
Ruiz’ direction is deceptively simple, but he’s a master at mis-en-scene, following his actors’ movements in slow tracking shots while maintaining flowing portraiture, or devising incredibly complex shots without a single cut. One aspect of a ball sequence is covered in one elegant shot, and the use of authentic period buildings, sheds, and estates ensures maximum production value. The sense of one peeking into private lives is also playfully conveyed in a bedroom sequence where the infidelity of a countess is glimpsed only when curtains and doors are opened for the camera.
Shot in HD, the clarity of the images is stunning, regardless of brilliant daytime or dour shots of a carriage careening across a gloomy overcast field. Every forest leaf and element of interior décor is in focus, making the viewing of Mysteries mandatory in a big theatre. The audio mix and sound design is equally sharp, although peripheral ambiance tracks – such as rainfall or passing wind – is digitally over-processed, and sounds washed-out in spots.
Most likely Mysteries will be released in its 4 hour cut on home video, but hopefully the 6 hour version will eventually make its way to Blu-ray, much in the way Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny & Alexander (1978) eventually emerged in both edits.
Sometimes longer is better.
Prior to his death in August of 2011, Portuguese filmmaker Raoul Ruiz had directed more than 100 films and TV episodes, managing almost a project each year after 1967, so it’s unsurprising there’s at least one more film – La noche de enfrente - to emerge posthumously on the big screen.
A 44 minute interview with director Ruiz, conducted in May of 2011 for France Culture (in French only) in which he discusses the making of Mysteries, is still available online.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan