Raúl Ruiz is a filmmaker of labyrinths. A marvelously elastic storyteller, a dry wit, and a Rivettean anti-determinist, the Chilean auteur is fascinated by narratives that dilate from within, images seemingly full of secret passageways, and fabulists who collect tales like toys. In that sense, the ideal Ruiz project is his often sublime 1999 visualization of Time Regained, where Proust's themes of slippery memory weren't so much adapted for the screen as used as the flame which kept the director's own magic-lantern show reshaping itself over and over. Similarly adapted from a literary sprawler, Mysteries of Lisbon only occasionally hits the earlier film's levels of boldness, yet it nevertheless finds Ruiz in plangent form, offering a sumptuous and fluid work that, at its best, gives the elating impression of flipping through a book as the pages evaporate into smoke.
It's not Proust but Dickens that's evoked in Portuguese author Camilo Castelo Branco's portrait of 19th-century great expectations, and Ruiz opens on a fitting note of childlike obsession. The narrator, Pedro da Silva, recalls his roots as a 14-year-old (played by João Arrais) stuck in a Lisbon boarding school, coping with bullies and with having neither family nor name. It's the "diary of suffering" described in the opening titles, but then it morphs into a fairy tale: Angela (Maria João Bastos), the boy's mother, finally comes to him as a doleful beauty trapped in a castle by a sadistic ogre of a nobleman (Albano Jeronimo). Reunited with her, young Pedro wonders about his father. Switch narrator: Now Father Diniz (Adriano Luz), the orphanage's kind overseer, recounts a saga of aristocratic cruelty and doomed lovers in which the padre cameos under a completely different identity. Meanwhile, the boy creates his own narrative up in his room, moving cutout figures this way and that in his puppet theater.
Characters and subplots proliferate, braiding and blurring themselves. The thug (Ricardo Pereira) hired to kill Angela's lover later turns up as a moneyed Brazilian rake who specializes in making high-society divas literally swoon on drawing-room floors, and the duel that follows as a result is built up only to be casually triggered on the side of the road. A "frivolous game" becomes a "sordid drama," someone says, or maybe it's the other way around. Though more earthbound than Proust's, Castelo Branco's structure is liquid enough to allow Ruiz to skip between generations as characters don different guises and flashbacks sprout within flashbacks. The narrative shifts focus—sometimes the film is about Pedro (played by José Afonso Pimentel as an adult), at others it's about Padre Diniz or the Gallic heiress Elisa (Clotilde Hesme)—but the director's camera, continually prowling through burnished tableaux, remains attuned to the subtle and epic emotions of each fable.
Operatic and droll, Mysteries of Lisbon wears its period compositions and magisterial length (four-and-a-half hours, edited from a six-hour miniseries) lightly. Ruiz has often staged his films as pleasurably disorienting games, and here he sets up stodgily handsome, candlelit frames that are shaken by the characters' subjective tremors: When the teenage protagonist tosses about feverishly and his bed seems to float around the chamber, the sequence suggests a dark-toned oil painting warped by heat and anguish. Manoel de Oliveira, who did his own episodic adaptation of Castelo Branco with 1979's Ill-Fated Love, would have shot these arias as a serene procession of memories and apparitions meant to evoke an ever vanishing medium. Just as interested in cinema's longevity and mortality, Ruiz weaves a less rarefied vision of passion and melancholy intersecting. They may flow from Lisbon, but the film's mysteries, human as well as cinematic, are universal.