Mysteries of Lisbon: An Open Book, by David Bax
For a filmmaker who passed away nearly a decade ago, Raoul Ruiz has had a shockingly prolific career of late. The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror, shot in 1967, finally premiered earlier this year at the Berlin International Film Festival. In 2017, his The Wandering Soap Opera, shot in 1990, debuted at Locarno. Mysteries of Lisbon is different in that it was completed and released before he died. But, until now, only the truncated (but still very long) theatrical version was available here in the United States. Starting this week, though, Film at Lincoln Center is streaming it exclusively at their website (with a larger streaming release to come this summer) in its full, six hour miniseries version, stuffed with enough extravagance, melodrama and voracious acting to be considered a wandering soap opera all its own.
Mysteries of Lisbon begins, in Dickensian fashion, with an orphan boy (João Arrais). When he falls ill, a mysterious rich woman (Maria João Bastos) comes to visit him at his bedside. The orphanage’s resident priest, Padre Dinis (Adriano Luz), reveals to the sick boy that she is his mother. Through flashbacks, we come to learn about the boy’s parents and how he came to be in the orphanage, which then leads to the tale of the cruel man his mother went on to marry, which then leads to the tale of an untrustworthy, rich merchant who’s just arrived in town and so on and so forth, unfurling further and further from the original story before finally coming back to the boy, now recovered and full grown (Alfonso Pimentel), in its final hour.
Having never seen the theatrical release, I can’t say what was removed and in what order the rest was presented. But the miniseries format fits this tale beautifully, with each chapter mostly devoted to a single character’s story. Each comes with a helpful heads up in the format of an episode title; when we see that an installment is called, say, “The Crimes of Anacleta dos Remedios,” we know we’re about to meet an exciting new character.
We end up so far from where we started that it only gradually becomes apparent that it’s not the orphan boy but, rather, Padre Dinis (and, to a lesser extent, the aforementioned sinister merchant, played wonderfully by Ricardo Pereira) who is the fulcrum–or should we say the crux?–of Mysteries of Lisbon. It’s he who tells–or causes to be told–most of the stories. What we’re watching, we come to realize, is the story of how this man, once a young poet, encountered, time and time again, betrayal, violence and greed over the course of his life until he became the man the orphan knows, both cynic and savior.
While rich in character, however, such interests are secondary to Ruiz. More than anything else, Mysteries of Lisbon is simply an exultation of the joys and possibilities of storytelling. Like the diorama the sick boy’s mother gifts him–and to which Ruiz returns again and again, repopulating its miniature proscenium with cut-outs illustrating each chapter–the film itself is a malleable backdrop on which to tell heartbreaking and salacious stories of romance, murder, larceny and more. Everyone, Mysteries of Lisbon reminds us, is an anthology all their own.
Ruiz is not merely illustrating narratives, though; he’s not just a storyteller but a purposefully cinematic one. For six hours, he conducts a flawless and entrancing dance between his characters and the camera, with sumptuously long takes repeatedly reblocked while the camera moves with stunning facility on dollies, gimbals and cranes. Some of these images are arch, like the one looking upward through the floor while the merchant tears up and drops a letter meant for him without even reading it. But even those are carefully considered, with silhouettes of onlookers seen eavesdropping from the second floor above. No space in the frame–indeed, no second in Mysteries of Lisbon‘s very long runtime–is wasted.