Monday, August 01, 2011

Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon

Everyone in Portuguese novelist Camilo Castelo Branco’s city of Lisbon seems to be secretly connected to each other. At least, this seems to be the case for all those marginalized on the peripheries of upper-class society: the noble penniless, the social climbing adventurers, the cousins twice-removed, the clergy with secret pasts, the scandalous and the scandalized. Each has their own story to tell in Raúl Ruiz’s masterful 272 minute epic adaption of Castelo Branco’s novel Mysteries of Lisbon (trailer here), which opens in all its rich, complicated glory this Friday in New York.

Pedro da Silva serves as Lisbon’s first and over-riding meta-narrator, who will be frequently interrupted by the flashbacks and voiceovers of others, whose tales will span the decades of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. 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.

It is quite a story, but Lisbon is only just getting started. Everyone has crisscrossing back-stories that we learn in spectacular 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 classically tragic and unexpectedly redemptive opus.

Though reliance on coincidence is often derided as contrivance, such pedantry would preclude one from appreciating this truly rich, hugely ambitious film. While Lisbon’s period look is finely rendered, Ruiz brings a post-modern sensibility to the picture, yet never undermines the dramatic integrity of his multiple story arcs. In a sense, Lisbon is a film entirely about narrative, but never at the expense of its narrative. 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, Lisbon 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. Amongst Lisbon’s several luckless heroines, the striking Maria João Bastos unquestionably commands the screen the most vividly, personifying 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, the four-hour-plus running time constitutes a not inconsiderable scheduling investment. It really is that good, though. A gorgeous looking film, featuring genuinely artful craftsmanship from cinematographer André Szankowski and Isabel Branco’s design team, as well as at least a dozen first class screen performances (probably more), Lisbon is easily one of the year’s best films. At 272 minutes, it is also quite an effective way to beat the heat. Highly and enthusiastically recommended, Lisbon opens this Friday (8/5) at the IFC Center downtown and the Elinor Bunim Munroe Film Center uptown.