Director Raul Ruiz has created an epic masterpiece in “Mysteries of Lisbon,” a mash-up of Charles Dickens, “Masterpiece Theatre” and telenovelas. Enthusiasts will enjoy all 257 minutes of the film, which moves surprisingly well under Ruiz’s skillful direction. Based on the 19th century Portuguese novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, the film stars Adriano Luz, Maria Joao Bastos, and Lea Seydoux.
In three decades, Ruiz has made over 100 films in various media and formats — feature films, documentaries, and Mexican and Chilean television programs, from 16 and 35 mm film to cutting edge digital. “Mysteries of Lisbon” was shot on Panavision’s high-end digital Genesis camera. Highly acclaimed, Ruiz’s films have been nominated or won awards at Cannes, Locarno, Berlin, France, and Venice. Since the 1980s, he’s partnered with producer Paulo Branco, who suggested Ruiz direct “Mysteries of Lisbon,” which had been adapted by screenwriter Carlos Saboga.
“Mysteries” follows orphan Pedro da Silva (Joao Luis Arrais), a bastard child of an ill-fated romance of aristocrats now under the scholarly care of Father Dinis (Adriano Luz) in 19th century Portugal. Pedro is forever searching for the truth of his ancestry and also has feelings that a grand life awaits him. Some in school even wonder if perhaps Pedro is the son of Father Dinis.
After a fight with a fellow student, Pedro falls ill. In a feverish dream, he sees figures dance in and out of his room in blurry or stretched states (one is reminded of Ingrid Bergman awakening from her drunken state in “Notorious”). When Pedro’s fever breaks, he awakes to find a gift of a small theatrical stage with cutout actors: a present from whom he will later find out is his mother, the countess of Santa Barbara (Maria Joao Bastos). Pedro hears the truth about his heritage while assisting his mother, who is imprisoned in her husband’s palace.
Covering over 30 years of storytelling through the lands of Portugal, France, Italy, and Brazil, “Mysteries of Lisbon” weaves hidden identities with plot twists and turns. Minor characters who pass through the narrative may later turn out to be a major figure in another’s life. But throughout the film, all will somehow be linked in strange and spectacular ways to Pedro, who becomes an adult, and also Father Dinis.
With an obvious nod to soap operas, Ruiz cleverly employs “the world is a stage” mantra with the use of Pedro’s doll-sized theatrical stage, as well as the camera’s framing of scenes. Long takes of long shots expose the narrative. Viewers have ample opportunity to take in the settings, and in some ways be part of the settings. Like us, maids or monks stand in the foreground or background eavesdropping on the scene’s action.
One particularly rousing scene is framed through the outside window of a horse-drawn carriage. Dinis sits inside the carriage as the action takes place through the carriage’s opposite window: It’s an attempted duel with shipping magnate (aka pirate) Alberto de Magalhaes (Ricardo Pereira). Viewers crane their necks to try to witness the fight through the window.
In the production notes, Ruiz comments on how the characters of “Mysteries of Lisbon” go through three stages: “birth, betrayal and redemption.” He also explains that author Camilo Castelo Branco invites us “to travel in a world of joyful misfortunes and painful triumphs.” Ruiz has captured that journey particularly well.
“Mysteries of Lisbon” is 257 minutes and Unrated. It opens in Los Angeles August 12.