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With: Adriano Luz, Maria João Bastos, Ricardo Pereira, Clotilde Hesme, José Afonso Pimentel, João Arrais, Albano Jerónimo, João Baptista, Martin Loizillon, Julien Alluguette, Rui Morrison, Joana de Verona, Carloto Cotta, Maria João Pinho, José Manuel Mendes
Written by: Carlos Saboga, based on a book by Camilo Castelo Branco
Directed by: Raoul Ruiz
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: Portuguese, French, with English subtitles
Running Time: 257
Date: 09/12/2010

Mysteries of Lisbon (2011)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Secrets Within 'Mysteries'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Chilean-born filmmaker Raoul Ruiz passed away this August at the age of 70, leaving behind a sometimes awesome, sometimes baffling set of films. Mysteries of Lisbon is one of his latest, though not his last. It's being shown in the U.S. in a 4-1/2 hour version, edited down from a six-episode TV mini-series.

The new movie is similar in many ways to Ruiz's Time Regained (1999), which dared to adapt to the screen the last book of Marcel Proust's massive Remembrance of Things Past (also translated as In Search of Lost Time). Rather than a literal adaptation, Ruiz gave us a rumination on the fluidity of memory and the essence of creation.

Mysteries of Lisbon is also very fluid, ducking in and out of narrative channels, or perhaps fitting each section of the story into compartments of similar size. It's based on a novel by Portuguese writer Camilo Castelo Branco, who reportedly published some 250 novels, none of which has been translated into English. (The great Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira filmed one of them as Doomed Love in 1979.)

Ostensibly, it begins focused on certain characters, mainly a boy, Joao (Joao Luiz Arrais), who grows up to become nobleman Pedro da Silva. But in the first part of the film, young Joao lives in a boarding school, raised by Father Dinis (Adriano Luz). Before long, Joao learns that he's the illegitimate son of the Countess of Santa Barbara (Maria Joao Bastos). As the title suggests, these characters all have mysteries and secrets that are gradually unfolded, but only after a myriad of other characters have been introduced and told their intertwining stories.

The most incidental character in the movie can suddenly get a compartment, a flashback, and a story, all to himself, and it somehow links to everything else -- though just how it links may not be clear at first. Of course, all this stuff is really nothing more than a soap opera, with outsized passions, affairs, revenge, lifelong secrets, and confessions occurring at every moment. There are no subtle performances here, and some touches are downright bizarre, such as the shuffling manservant that continues to run in place when delivering messages.

It's a lot to handle, but Ruiz takes this extraordinarily convoluted narrative -- which has the power to lose even the most astute, observant, and intelligent viewer -- and makes it seem effortless, and even playful. His camera often lingers over a scene, extending a shot to several minutes. Sometimes the camera wanders around in a semi-circle, and other times it will find some obscure angle in a corner, or through a doorway, to observe some particularly juicy detail.

I think I love best that Ruiz found a way to adapt this frothy tale to an equally frothy style of filmmaking. It's alive in the most passionate way. Yet it also takes an intelligent approach, realizing that any story can be told from a number of points of view, but -- as suggested in the film's final scene -- even an infinite number of storytellers still only results in a subjective story.

I'm not yet sure if Mysteries of Lisbon is a masterpiece; I wanted it to continue dazzling me throughout its running time, but there were sections in the second half where I could begin to see the seams show; I began to detect a pattern in its rhythms. Nonetheless, this is a very special movie, and one that should be sought out regardless of the time investment involved.

Music Box Films has released a very nice three-disc set (both on DVD and Blu-Ray). The movie is spread across two discs, with a host of great extras on the third. There's a 37-minute video interview with the late Ruiz, as well as a radio interview, an interview with the screenwriter, a fascinating French film critics' roundtable discussion, a 15-minute featurette on the original novelist, and a trailer. The liner notes booklet includes an essay by Ruiz, and one by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.

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