PRINT September 2011


Raúl Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon

Raúl Ruiz, Mistérios de Lisboa (Mysteries of Lisbon), 2010, still from a color digital video, 257 minutes.

I will tell you everything at the appropriate time.
—Dom Álvaro de Albuquerque, in Mysteries of Lisbon

A TWOFOLD RESURRECTION, of both the life and the career of Chilean maestro Raúl Ruiz, Mysteries of Lisbon was made as the itinerant director neared death from liver cancer. The majestic control and sustained intricacy of Ruiz’s nesting epic, four and a half hours of false, mistaken, multiple, and discarded identities—the six-part television version runs more than an hour longer—seem doubly miraculous, given Ruiz’s dire health and his propensity for off-leash excursus and experimentation. Mercifully, surgery saved Ruiz, allowing him to enjoy the success of his improbable masterpiece, the director’s best film since his supreme distillation of Proust, Le Temps retrouvé (1999).

Like Time Regained, Mysteries of Lisbon is derived from a literary work of intimidating immensity and national reverence: Camilo Castelo Branco’s three-volume Portuguese novel, a Dickensian “diary of suffering” set during the Peninsular War (1808–14) and marshaling more than a hundred characters, most of whom have a tale to impart. In a welter of mixed metaphors perhaps appropriate for this logorrheic project, Ruiz recently explained his affinity for the novel: “This avalanche, this cataract of humiliations, of unexpected crimes and disasters, this river of painful loves and wounded hopes which doused the fertile valley of tears inhabited by Camilo’s characters, I had known them forever. I felt I had the strength to cover this territory, to navigate through it with the fervor of a volunteer worker saving the victims of an umpteenth flood in India.” In doing so, he also saved himself. Ruiz’s work of the past decade, including an ill-fated life of Klimt in 2006, increasingly evidenced a diminution of the visual wit and narrative prolificacy that had distinguished such early classics as City of Pirates and Three Crowns of the Sailor (both 1983). Surpassed at every turn by Manoel de Oliveira, the centenarian Portuguese master with whom he shares many characteristics, including a taste for Luis Buñuel and for nineteenth-century culture, Ruiz lapsed into mannerism; yet his precise, impassioned management of Castelo Branco’s narrative enormity—all the more surprising given Ruiz’s own tendency to graphomania and digression (“discovery through dispersal” is the motto of his book Poetics of Cinema [2005])—achieves something close to classical grandeur.

A summit of Ruiz’s cinema of surfeit, Mysteries of Lisbon begins (and ends) with a little joke about excess. The central character, for whom Mysteries becomes a kind of warped bildungsroman, complains that he has only one appellation, João, while all the other boys in his orphanage have three, four, or five surnames. This Iberian surplus of familial designation prefigures a pattern, as Castelo Branco’s characters change names as easily as they doff identities. “I’ve had other names,” intones Father Dinis, João’s priestly protector, who was born an aristocrat and fought in the French Revolution before becoming a gypsy and thence a cleric. “I’ve been other men. But they are all dead.” So, too, the many other characters whose fates intersect with João, himself later known as Dom Pedro da Silva: the burping, violent gypsy called Knife-Eater, assigned to kill João at birth, who transforms himself into a nobleman grandly named Alberto de Magalhães; and the fallen Madame Cliton, alternatively referred to as Duchesse Elisa de Montfort. Everyone carries an extra moniker or six, mirage and masquerade adding to the sense of dissembling and ever-shifting identity: “Is your cassock real or is it more of a disguise?” someone asks a cleric. “Another secret?” the nun who was a countess inquires of the priest who was a gypsy. Castelo Branco’s world of strict social protocol, of forced marriages, retreats into nunneries, and thwarted romance (the latter a specialty of the author, as Oliveira’s 1978 adaptation Doomed Love attests) seems astonishingly rife with mobility, sudden reversals of fortune, hasty departures, and prodigal returns, his characters moving between countries, class divisions, and personas with operatic ease. Few turn out to be what they first seem, and many end as their initial’s opposite: the haughty Marquis of Montezelos as a mad, blind beggar; the lascivious Álvaro as a monk; the monstrous Anacleta dos Remédios, as her last name predicts, as a saintly do-gooder. Ruiz sums up this proliferating mutability of being: “The characters of Mysteries of Lisbon are victims, the perfect examples of the vertiginous social mobility of the romantic century that invented the aesthetics of suicide and authors’ rights.”

Ruiz’s taste for the Borgesian and the baroque—he hails from a family of seafaring storytellers—finds an ideal in Castelo Branco’s imbricated maze of ever taller tales and exponential enigma. The narrative spirals from one character’s testimony to another, filling in backstories, eavesdropping on gossip and rumor like the lurking servants in several scenes, and revealing a profusion of interrelations. The compulsive tales verily demand a Mark Lombardi to map the snarled network of connections between their wanton countesses, libertine priests, and fatherless boys. (Ruiz and Castelo Branco share the theme of patriarchal crisis; João may be a bastard, but he’s luckier than the little friend whose dad swings from the gallows in an early scene.) “The past does not rewrite itself,” Alberto insists to Madame Cliton, but our sense of every character’s history, what Ruiz calls each one’s “birth, betrayal, and redemption,” keeps being revised as new information is divulged. The film’s narration also passes from voice to voice, sometimes within a sequence, so the inattentive viewer might find himself struggling to keep straight who is betraying whom, never mind why. (It takes a moment to register that the lank-haired poet smitten with Madame Cliton is the adult João.)

Raúl Ruiz, Mistérios de Lisboa (Mysteries of Lisbon), 2010, still from a color digital video, 257 minutes.

In its often Viscontian swank—cameras swirling through gilded opera houses and rococo villas, aristocrats mongering scandal in Regency-era finery—Mysteries of Lisbon largely avoids the impurities of tone, genre, and narration found in Ruiz’s outlandish early films, in which Hammer horror conjoins with Dostoyevsky and Doris Day, characters speak a language concocted by the director, and actors are suddenly switched or replaced without comment. Rather than play its usual role of devious forestaller, the portentous, perpetually climactic music of Ruiz’s house composer, Jorge Arriagada, here a delicate bombast of Glassian arpeggios and Sibelian dark strings, for once augments the film’s prevailing tone. (The lush symphonic signature theme is by twentieth-century Portuguese composer Luís de Freitas Branco.) Nevertheless, Ruiz remains a walking paradox, Victor-ian surrealist and hieratic fabulist. Trust Ruiz, who has worked with the cinema’s greatest masters of light, including Henri Alekan and Sacha Vierny, to hire a nascent cinematographer, a thirty-year-old Brazilian, André Szankowski, trained only in advertising, to contend with the director’s idiosyncratic visual style. Formerly reliant on artisanal artifice—garish filters, cut-rate special effects, unanchored space, impossible point-of-view shots (one from inside a mouth), and cheesy surrealism (worm-eaten cadavers enjoying a sea vista, splattered brains fashioned into an “island of pirates”)—Ruiz’s arsenal has included such contrivances as Wellesian deep focus, greatly exaggerated, and the “glide shot,” in which camera and character skim the floor together at equal speed or a stationary actor is propelled forward by unseen means, confounding all conventional sense of cinematic stasis and movement.

Szankowski’s digital camera seems exempt from gravity in Steadicam levitation, and from all spatial constraint in lateral tracking shots that pass through cutaway walls to capture conversations moving from room to room. It arcs and circles largely at mid-distance, exploring palazzi and the sere Portuguese countryside with cranes and dollies and pans of exquisite fluidity. (A shot of a horse-drawn carriage traversing a landscape of leaning trees and glowering skies is a recurring motif.) As the story becomes ever more convoluted—“The second act is even better,” a character comments about an opera, in one of the film’s many clever self-references—Szankowski indulges, though sparingly, in some dizzying Ruizian tricks and trompe l’oeil effects: a parrot or child’s head shoved into the extreme foreground, scrupulously aligned in deep focus with the rest of the composition; theatrical lighting used as an antique form of rack focus, switching between João and a distant conversation behind him; voyeuristic shots of Álvaro and the countess framed by a furtively parted curtain, though the point of view is, perversely, ascribed to no one; a close-up of Father Dinis reflected in a coffee cup (a parody of the famous “cosmos in a coffee cup” in Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her?); the “fevered visions” of the ailing João, rendered in swimmy, sallow anamorphic distortions at the film’s beginning and end (in a sequence that might suggest the entire fiction is a sickbed hallucination). Two of the most boggling shots return to the pictorial deceptions of Ruiz’s Roof of the Whale (1982) and City of Pirates—one at the opera, from an extremely low-slung angle peering up through what is eventually revealed to be a glass table on which Alberto strews torn paper, and another, precisely at the film’s three-hour mark, in which a cup and saucer mysteriously materialize through the grace of rack focus and appear to float in space, their roundness echoing a tondo frieze on the ceiling above.

The massive banner of a painted viaduct hoisted early in the film signals Ruiz’s predictable emphasis on metadevices: His canvas, too, is wide, and also fakes its effects. Throughout, paintings—of vanitas skulls and candles, Boschian descents into hell and repentant saints—and a miniature theater in which scenes from the film are replayed as cutout puppetry remind us that this histoire tenebreuse is only a representation. As he has frequently done in his films, Ruiz inserts references to his own stateless identity—“We were without a country,” Álvaro observes when he flees to Venice—and slyly comments on the nature of his hyperbolic tale: “In life,” the narrator insists, “there are events and coincidences of such extravagance that no novelist could ever dare invent them.” With Mysteries of Lisbon, Ruiz reemerges as contemporary cinema’s most extravagant inventor.

Mysteries of Lisbon, which premiered in the US at the New York Film Festival last October, opens this month in select cities nationwide.

James Quandt is senior programmer at Tiff Cinematheque in Toronto.