Prolific Franco-Chilean director, Raúl Ruiz’s penultimate film, Mysteries of Lisbon, is a labyrinthine, pan-European, Proustian epic that twists and turns across the generations.
The Art of Memory by Laura Bennett
His final fully-complete film finished not long before his death, aged 70, in August 2011, Mysteries of Lisbon is Ruiz’s swansong and crowns a supremely accomplished legacy. A historical journey focusing on the lives and loves of the early-nineteenth century Portuguese aristocracy, Mysteries of Lisbon’s complex intrigue mirrors the dense alleyways of the Portuguese capital’s Moorish Alfama quarter. Lasting a full four and a half hours, free rein is given to Ruiz’s creative vision with this adaptation of the novel of the same name by the writer Camilo Castelo Branco. The plot pivots around the initially unknown ancestry of an apparently orphaned boy, Joao, accompanied throughout by his protector, the nonchalantly multi-lingual priest Padre Dinis, who slowly reveals the truth and, it later transpires, also has a story of his own to tell.
Mysteries of Lisbon provides us with a glimpse into another world, a world of honour, loyalty, manipulation, chivalry, passion, and love. A world in which a murderous peasant can set off to make his fortune in the New World and return to seduce the most beautiful and eligible women in Paris and Lisbon. A world in which an intransigent father forbids his daughter to marry the man she loves due to his social standing, sending her off into a convent when it becomes clear she is carrying his child. A world that seems boundless in terms of geographical borders, stretching across Europe and as far as North Africa, but with class boundaries that are not so easily overcome.
Like the cardboard figures in the small puppet theatre so beloved by Joao and Padre Dinis, the characters’ lives are intertwined as if part of some wider plot controlled by an omniscient being, perhaps harking back to the director’s previous career as a playwright. Ruiz creates a furtive, almost spy-drenched ambience; we see the characters from behind doors left ajar, through shutters, peeping around curtains, or reflected in mirrors or glass table-tops. Playing with angles and viewpoints, Ruiz positions the audience in the role of an eavesdropping maid, in possession of the bigger picture that remains obscured to those who long to see it most.
Much of the narrative is recounted through memories. Characters sit down to reminisce together about times-gone-by, or one unveils the truth about their previously concealed past to another. These memories drive the plot, making it ebb and flow as each episode blends into another, constructing a multitude of overlapping layers that often come full circle as connections between each section are revealed by the appearance of characters that have already figured in a different place, time or guise. Equally frozen in the realm of memory, there is much to compare Mysteries of Lisbon to Ruiz’s masterful 1999 adaptation of Proust’s classic, Time Regained.
Beautifully recreated with immaculate sets and costumes that do much to immerse the viewer in the film’s world, Mysteries of Lisbon is a feast for the eyes. With a typically avant-garde approach to genre, Ruiz also conceived the film as a TV series with six 1-hour episodes each focusing on a particular character and storyline. This allows some plot strands cut from the film to develop further, as certain episodes come to light. In one of his last interviews, however, the director claims to have preferred the feature-length format, its multitude of narrative threads heading off in a variety of different directions, appealing to his sense of rhythm and structure.
With well over 100 films to his name, Mysteries of Lisbon is a more than fitting culmination to this remarkable director’s career. Although seeing this film through to its end is undeniably a significant time commitment, it’s certainly a rewarding one that draws the audience in, transporting them to a plethora of different times and places, in Lisbon and beyond.
Mysteries of Lisbon is released in the UK on December 9th 2011