A Rich Tapestry of I’m sorry, but I’ve completely lost interest, by Tyler Smith
There is a famous scene in “Seinfeld” in which Elaine is attending The English Patient and is bored out of her mind. Finally, she can’t help herself. She yells at the screen, begging the narrator to stop telling his stupid story and just die already. As much as those around her may love it, and as painfully self important as the film is, Elaine just doesn’t see what is so special about The English Patient.
There were a few moments during Raoul Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon in which I felt like yelling at the screen. I certainly didn’t want any of the characters to die. But, after a certain point, I got tired of all the stories. While I’ve always been a big proponent of the idea that everybody has a story to tell, I can’t deny that for a film to attempt to tell the stories of every character- however insignificant- is somewhat distancing to the primary story that we’ve been asked to invest ourselves in. This is not Nashville, nor is it Magnolia. While the cast of characters grows over the course of the film’s 257-minute running time, I found that I couldn’t quite divorce myself from the story that Ruiz kicks off the film with. After all, that story takes up the bulk of the film’s first half, which is no small thing when one considers that the first half is about the same length as most other films.
I don’t want to spend too much time on the film’s length. At four and a half hours, the film does feel a bit bloated. But, then, I do subscribe to the idea that a good movie is seldom long enough; you could almost always spend a little bit more time with these characters, immersed in this story. The problem with Mysteries of Lisbon, however, is that it was edited down from a six-hour miniseries. I have no doubt that this miniseries is good. In fact, having seen this film and found it mostly unsatisfying, I wonder if the nature of the story was always meant to be six hours. Somehow, 257 minutes just doesn’t quite cut it. If the filmmakers were committed to making their miniseries into a feature film, perhaps they should have been willing to trim some of the more superfluous storylines and cut the film down to a respectable three hours or so. As it is, it feels like the film contains too much to be a satisfying feature and doesn’t contain quite enough to justify its length. Perhaps the only way for the side stories and peripheral characters to add up to a truly satisfying experience was to truly give them their due and allow the film to remain six hours.
Maybe it should have stayed a miniseries.
That said, there is plenty to enjoy about the film. The characterizations, performances, art direction, cinematography; it’s all top notch. The primary story revolves around a young orphan whose life, it would appear, is decidedly Dickensian. Having been conceived out of wedlock in 19th century Lisbon, the boy’s life is in danger from the very first. However, as we see the various people that have shown mercy on him, we start to feel that this boy is important. We become invested in what his life will become. And, indeed, this is what makes the first half of the film so interesting. While we do see one flashback after another, each has to do with this boy, in some way, shape, or form. We see the tragic story of his mother, who was forced to give up both her lover and her son. There is the story of the kindly priest that allowed the boy to reside at his Catholic school. The story of the pirate hired to kill both the boy and his mother’s lover. The story of the cruel man the boy’s mother was forced to marry.
To watch these separate stories unfold is very engaging. We feel as though we are watching a great tapestry being woven. An entire world is being created before our eyes, in which this boy is the focal point. We see these characters interact and we are eager to know their history and excited when we are allowed a peak at their motivations. When we broke for intermission, I couldn’t wait to get back to the film to see what more awaited me.
My disappointment started almost immediately in the second half, when we were treated to the extended story of a character that was in only one scene and had only one line in the first half. Don’t get me wrong, his story is interesting, but I just didn’t care. We come to find out that this man has a connection to the priest, which is fine. The problem is that we just spend two hours becoming more and more engaged in the story of the orphan boy and his many caretakers. To veer off and tell the stories of characters that, quite frankly, barely even register as characters is, at best, distracting.
And it continues. The film shows us the story of a woman that was once romantically connected to the pirate, who has now become a respectable businessman. Of course, we care about the story of the pirate, but only insofar as it relates to the primary storyline about the boy. To go any further out is to start to lose the audience.
Finally, towards the end of the film, we see the boy several years later. As one would expect, the film starts to pick up again. Because we are finally allowed a satisfactory payoff to what was set up in the first half of the film. As boy- now a man- encounters somebody from his past- a past that we are well acquainted with- the film becomes riveting. We are once again involved. So, in that sense, I would go so far as to say that the film has a satisfactory ending. Unfortunately, we had to force interest through 90 superfluous minutes to get there.
Perhaps that was the point. Maybe the filmmaker wanted us to earn that ending. We had to work for it by acknowledging that, while we may be interested primarily in the boy’s story, the fact is that everybody involved- from the other school children to the dukes and duchesses to the butlers- has a story to tell. And the film wants to emphasize that by telling as many as it can in the relatively short time allowed.
That is a theme that I embrace and am usually more than willing to work for in ensemble dramas like Gosford Park or Short Cuts. Unfortunately, Mysteries of Lisbon winds up being a sort of bait and switch. Its bawdy melodrama- which often felt like a period soap opera- was engaging and often quite entertaining. But then it got bigger. And bigger. And bigger. Until, finally, I just didn’t care about anything going on anymore.
Sometimes, the problem with widening your gaze is a profound loss of focus.