There are two to three more productions still in the pipeline, but Raúl Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon stands as an unfortunate but entirely appropriate capstone to the career of one of the most adventurous and inventive filmmakers who ever lived. Although Ruiz worked in (and through, and under, and around) too many genres for a single work to address, Mysteries of Lisbon has all the head-of-the-table weight it appears to have earned thanks to a substantial run on the festival and art-house circuits, and seems to contain the essence of Ruiz’s Proust idée fixe, which he’s been nursing since time out of mind.
To attempt to create a synopsis of Mysteries of Lisbon is to fall into the same trap from which Ruiz sets out to escape. Suffice to say it begins with a young boy named João, the bastard child of a forbidden marriage who suffers a head injury early on in the film, and may or may not spend the entire remainder of the running time producing the unfolding, thousand-strand narrative from his stricken brain. Of course, the reason why Ruiz is pretty much the only director in history who can do the old “it was all just a dream” rug-pull is because the notion that it’s not a dream is just as valid, leaving us free to bask in the romantic, novelistic, and Rococo ocean surge, and to enjoy the fiction-as-fiction even as we observe its self-awareness.
Similar to what many directors of long-form stories have wisely realized about their chosen source material, there’s an inherent serial appeal in Camilo Castelo Branco’s mid-19th-century novel, and Ruiz, with screenwriter Carlos Saboga, splits the tale into a few substantial, but highly manageable segments. It’s almost the only way to do a long, long, long movie without driving your audience crazy, and Ruiz’s success as a traditional storyteller is exactly what turns Mysteries of Lisbon into a great meal that no moviegoer should be intimidated by, on account of running time or subtitles. A common refrain in the film’s dialogue is “You must be wondering how I came to be x, y, or z…,” a bald-faced ploy to begin the upload not only of a sizable amount of exposition, but a whole new layer of the story—a ploy that somehow works each time Ruiz makes use of it.
At just under five hours (the original miniseries was six hours even), Mysteries of Lisbon doesn’t just have the weight of a career summation, it also has the breadth of a giant novel, plus the depth of a very heavy REM-cycle dream. Very generally like most of Ruiz’s body of work, and more specifically like his Proust-inspired period pictures, the landscape, big rooms, and little rooms in Mysteries of Lisbon are built alongside the boundary between the conscious and unconscious. Its transitions are often modeled after that moment when one’s rumbling midbrain activity cools and dissolves against the druggy tractor-beam pull of sleep, or the obverse sensation, when one’s time-and-space awareness emerges from the amniotic sac of a night’s slumber. It’s some kind of feat, then, even as Ruiz opens all available doors and windows, crossing (at times flaunting) boundaries in all their material forms, he still manages to make an artwork that displays his enormous, governing control, that of a master architect who can manipulate several, complex layers with the wave of a hand.
Ironically, given that Raúl Ruiz was a director who recognized boundaries only insofar as he vaulted past them and was able to hold us in that magic moment between waking and falling asleep, without obfuscation or confusion, Music Box's Blu-ray disc of Mysteries of Lisbon is rife with edge enhancement, and a cloud of digital bees seems to hover over every frame, especially when walls are of a solid color (well, with subtle grades of paint and texture), or black shadow cloaks the frame. You can endure the Blu-ray well enough if you're viewing from a dozen or more feet away (Ruiz's frame-filling detail is tough to ruin), but the director's work with digital video absolutely requires respectful fidelity to the video-ness of the image, as part of the whole package. That the producers of the Blu-ray opted to apply a set of authoring tools in an attempt to hide the same video-ness is a misjudgment of the highest order. Skin tones are like clay, the beautiful use of contrast between darks and lights often marred by insistent digital lines and artifacts. The sound mix's three components (diegetic sound, narration, score) are mixed well in the Blu-ray's Dolby Digital 5.1 Portuguese/French track, as well as the Dolby track. Everything is kept in a manageable range, but separated in a nice, room-filling manner.
Pretty great. For a movie that didn't exactly cross the million-dollar mark at the box office, Music Box gave Mysteries of Lisbon a perfectly respectable reception, with an entire disc devoted to supplemental material. There are two interviews with Ruiz, a fun and informative critics roundtable that aired on French television, and more. A booklet also accompanies the three-disc set, featuring two essays, one by Ruiz himself, and another by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. The featurettes help novice and experienced Ruiz viewers get a little context, the better to understand where the director is coming from, even if a truly comprehensive exploration of what makes Ruiz special might require a documentary twice the length of Mysteries of Lisbon, if not longer. The best featurette is the roundtable, which allows various aficionados to share their appreciation of Ruiz in a freewheeling format that seems just beyond the grasp of ordinary "experts talk" supplements.
A mixed bag for a career masterpiece, the Blu-ray of Mysteries of Lisbon gets some things wrong in terms of authoring, but Raúl Ruiz's final epic is so enchanting you may talk yourself into not noticing.