There’s much to say about Mysteries of Lisbon, Raúl Ruiz’s latest film, on a thematic level, but that’s to be expected for a 272-minute feature-film adaptation (cut down from a six-hour television miniseries) of a three-volume classic of Portuguese literature, Camilo Castelo Branco’s 1854 Mistérios de Lisboa. Class conflict, spirituality, romantic intrigue: All of these universal themes are traversed in its epic-length span, and one could certainly devote a whole essay to parsing the ways they manifest themselves throughout the film. But honestly, if there’s a reason Mysteries of Lisbon is as fluid and watchable as it is, it’s by virtue of its playful narrative structure and seemingly inexhaustible formal ingenuity. So allow me to bliss out on that for the moment.
Having only a passing familiarity with Ruiz’s previous work (his fascinating 1979 film The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting being my only frame of reference), I wasn’t quite prepared for the astonishingly high level of visual invention embodied by just about every (high-definition) shot in this film. And really, there doesn’t seem to be quite as many shots as one might think considering the film’s length, because Ruiz has a marked preference for allowing scenes to play out in long takes. But within those long takes, he does a slew of interesting and sometimes exhilarating things with the camera. He loves to pull off slow back-and-forth tracking shots within enclosed spaces, shoot dialogue scenes from unexpected angles, and enclose objects and characters within the wide frame. It’s rare that one can say for a film that every single shot is a triumph of imagination and execution, but such is the case with Mysteries of Lisbon; even when you might find your attention wavering at certain points from the stories being told, Ruiz gives us something to marvel at in each shot.
And simply taken on a narrative level, Mysteries of Lisbon plays as an endlessly compelling juggling act. Though the narrative finds an anchor of sorts in the mysteries surrounding young Pedro da Silva (borne from circumstances that he spends much of the film, especially in its first half, trying to uncover), Ruiz merely uses the characters as a springboard for telling others characters’ stories, and sometimes telling stories within stories. In between many of these stories, there are recurring images of events retold via Pedro’s puppet theater (a nod, perhaps, to Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, another luxurious chronicle of a child’s consciousness and dreams).
All of this is fascinating and even exhilarating to watch in the moment, but Ruiz isn’t just playing cinematic games here. The various narratives, when considered separately within the film’s Russian-doll structure and as a whole, feature recurring themes and situations which suggest the ways in which history has a tendency to repeat itself generation-to-generation—and that feel of history repeating itself probably wouldn’t have registered so viscerally if it had been shorter and more streamlined.
The stories themselves aren’t necessarily all that interesting on their own, and Ruiz—in a manner similar to the style and tone Stanley Kubrick adopted for his own great period drama Barry Lyndon—enforces a certain cosmic detachment to even the most seemingly operatic of tales, as evidenced by his preference for wide shots in his long takes (the sumptuous orchestral score, by Jorge Arriagada and Luís Freitas Branco, does add some palpable emotional layers to the storytelling). That is not to say, however, that the film is cold and unemotional, any more than Barry Lyndon was. As we have lived with these characters and have gotten to understand their quirks and deep-seated passions, Mysteries of Lisbon elegantly builds to a final passage of surprising emotional impact that fully justifies the time it has taken to get there…and even when you think you’ve figured out where Ruiz is heading, he throws yet another curve in its final scene that only adds to the film’s multitudinous mysteries of the human heart.
The 48th New York Film festival runs from September 24 to October 10. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.