Friday, October 08, 2010

NYFF ’10: Mysteries of Lisbon

Everyone in Portuguese novelist Camilo Castelo Branco’s late Eighteenth-early Nineteenth Century Lisbon seems to be secretly connected to each other. At least, this seems to be the case for all those marginalized on the upper-class peripheries: the noble penniless, the social climbing adventurers, the cousins twice-removed, the scandalous and the scandalized. Each has their own story to tell in Raúl Ruiz’s 272 minute epic adaption of Castelo Branco’s novel Mysteries of Lisbon (trailer here), which screens this Sunday at the 48th New York Film Festival.

Pedro da Silva is Lisbon’s first and over-riding meta-narrator, who will be frequently interrupted by the flashbacks and voiceovers of others. He does not even have a proper surname when he starts his story as an orphan in the boarding school administered by the kindly Father Dinis. Known only as João, he is frankly lucky to be alive. The illegitimate product of the Countess of Santa Barbara and her impoverished true love, fate spared him the premature death ordered by her vengeful husband, the Count. Eventually, da Silva furtively meets his abused mother through the assistance of Father Dinis, who duly explains his parents’ doomed romance.

Yet, Lisbon is just getting started. Everyone has crisscrossing back-stories that we learn in glorious detail, including the Count, Father Dinis, and even the killer sent to dispatch the infant da Silva. In fact, he reappears after a profitable Brazilian hiatus as a swashbuckling self-made man, who will play a strange role throughout young da Silva’s life. Still, this only scratches the surface of the subplots layered atop subplots in Ruiz’s decade and continent spanning, classically tragic and unexpectedly redemptive opus.

Though reliance on coincidence is often derided as contrivance, such pedantry would preclude one from appreciating a truly rich, hugely ambitious film. While Lisbon’s period look is finely rendered, Ruiz brings a post-modern sensibility to the picture, but never undermines its dramatic integrity. Instead, the unreliability of narrators and the slipperiness of identities deepen the film’s intrigue, while the stylized transitions of young da Silva’s proscenium arch playhouse simply add visual flair.

Ostensibly da Silva’s story, it is often hijacked by Ruiz’s large cast of characters, perhaps most profoundly by Adriano Luz as Father Dinis (and his two or three prior personas). It is a wonderfully humane and quietly assured performance that really gives the film its soul. In an effective contrast, Ricardo Peirera is an appropriately dynamic presence as the raffish Alberto de Magalhães, as he is now known. With several luckless heroines to pick from, Lisbon’s strongest is easily the striking Maria João Bastos, who personifies dignified grace as da Silva’s mother. However, the largely passive da Silva, both in the adult and child incarnations, comes across rather blandly.

There is so much cross-referencing to catch in Lisbon, it would obviously reward multiple viewings. Of course, at its current four hour plus running time that would constitute quite an investment. It really is that good, though. While an even longer version is set to debut on Portuguese television, Ruiz’s festival cut feels wholly complete as is. A gorgeous looking film featuring at least a dozen first class screen performances, Lisbon is arguably the highlight of the 2010 NYFF. It screens this Sunday (10/12) at Alice Tully Hall.