Friday, August 19, 2011

Mysteries of Lisbon

R.I.P Raul Ruiz, who died today at 70, defeated by the liver cancer he was battling while making this film. Here's my review.

In movies, as in any form of storytelling, it helps to have a good tale to tell, but what really counts is telling your story well. Their aggressive lack of imagination is what makes all those Frankenstein’s-monster summer sequels and superhero movies so tedious, with their obligatory explosions, mind-numbingly generic characters and dialogue, and by-the-numbers crises and resolutions.

In sharp, refreshing contrast, the expertise of longtime director-producer partners Raul Ruiz and Paulo Branco makes Mysteries of Lisbon one of the most absorbing movies I’ve seen this year, although it’s ultimately just a high-class soap opera, produced as a six-part series for Portuguese TV and boiled down to a little over four hours for the big screen.

Ruiz, a Chilean expat who has been making movies since the 1960s, is famous in his adopted homeland of France and among cinephiles worldwide, though few of his more than 100 films have made it to the United States. An intellectual filmmaker prone to quoting Bertolt Brecht and other seminal thinkers, Ruiz says Mysteries of Lisbon is “probably one of the most theoretical films I’ve made,” yet it never feels the least bit dry. Beautifully shot and acted and expertly paced, it pulled me in and kept me close with the ease of a seasoned seducer.

A few of the things people say in this movie, like “That’s what youth is all about: Naivete and arrogance,” are worth chewing over, but in general words are used more to obfuscate than to clarify. In the opening scene, contradictory reports of a war being waged offscreen are left unresolved: We don’t know which version to believe — if either. That’s a fitting introduction to this meandering movie, in which the minimal present-day action is constantly being interrupted so yet another narrator can deliver another in a series of incomplete, sometimes conflicting, almost always engaging tales about dissolute nobles, doomed love, children separated at birth from their parents, and other melodramatic staples.

Whether they’re prisoners of social convention or self-invented free spirits, the people in these stories are rarely what they seem — or maybe it’s just that whatever they seem to be at any given moment is only a small part of the picture. Even the main character, a boy called Joao (Joao Arrais), is a shapeshifter whose true identity is as elusive as smoke. Shortly before we learn that his real name is Pedro, he introduces himself by saying: “I was 14 and I didn’t know who I was at all.”

As Pedro and Father Dinis (Adriano Luz), the wise priest who raised him, search for answers to key questions about their lives, stories within the story unfold. The first, the fairy-tale tragedy of Pedro’s high-born, low-status parents, leads to others in ever-widening, overlapping circles.

Ruiz and screenwriter Carlos Saboga keep all that talk interesting, partly by switching from narration to re-enactments but mostly by balancing the melodrama inherent in the material (the screenplay is based on a novel by popular Portuguese author Camilo Castelo Branco) with a wry authorial reserve. People — most of them servants spying on their masters — often peer at or eavesdrop on one another through windows and doors, creating another layer of distance between us and the narrators and reminding us that, for all their troubles, they are the lucky ones, part of the ruling class in a society where social standing is paramount. The result is an unusual mixture of emotional investment and contemplative reserve that pulls you close without making you feel as if someone’s playing Twister with your intestines.

The excellent cast helps maintain that balance, delivering a grave and stately style of acting that fits the formal, somewhat antiquated dialogue. Their characters may be hard to pin down, but they’re never less than fully human. When a society lady feigns a faint in the midst of a party, we see the wounded pride, sheer panic, and faint hope of rescue that motivate her.

Ultimately, though, it’s the mysteries in Mysteries of Lisbon that give all that drama psychological depth, leaving you with the rare and satisfying sense of having seen a whole life unfold. Pedro’s story is sometimes tragic and sometimes ridiculous, but its telling is suffused with the bemused and loving wisdom of old age.

Written for TimeOFF

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