Costume dramas can be like history books, fundamentally dishonest; naturalising the ambiguous as certain and editing out anything inconvenient.
Raúl Ruiz rigorously dismantles this process in his epic drama, ‘Mysteries of Lisbon’ (‘Mistérios de Lisboa’), constructing a melodrama/soap opera full of the absurd contrivance and coincidences that shape the genre before slyly undermining his own plotting; leaving us to assemble various hints and half truths from amongst the ruins.
This is an extraordinarily ambitious film; far more challenging – both for filmmaker and audience – than his earlier costume drama masterpiece, ‘Time Regained’, which lent itself perfectly to Modernist cinema, weaving Proust’s novels and life into a magnificent Proustian whole that rejected any conventional perception of time and space; triumphantly merging narrative and film style.
Here, there was no such natural unity; a Brechtian/Godardian integrity – Ruiz exposing his own processes – clashes with melodrama’s emphatic insistence for suspending disbelief; creating an inherent but intriguing tension within almost every scene.
Ruiz adapted Camilo Castelo Branco’s 1854 novel of the same name, which has never received an English language translation. The film runs for a colossal four and half hours but Ruiz had already scaled it down from a six hour series, originally shot for Portuguese TV. Cinematic versions in two parts have an arbitrary separation that inevitably interrupts the flow and a TV series seems inconceivable.
The plot is circular, starting and ending with an orphan, João, who uncovers almost every conceivable form of aristocratic angst en route to establishing his parentage and place in society.
An enigmatic priest, Father Dinis, runs João’s orphanage and becomes his guide and ours. He appears selfless with a commanding spiritual authority but came to the priesthood with a questionable past; once a master of disguise and, possibly, deceit.
A romantic anti-hero, the Knife-Eater/assassin, reinvents himself as the courtly Alberto de Magalhães after making a killing in the slave trade and drifts into João’s life at key moments. He is darker than Heathcliff when on the outside but, gradually, takes on a different moral bearing as the plot develops.
And, adding more spice, there’s João’s sadistic father, the Count of Santa Barbara; tragic mother, the appropriately named Ângela; and dangerous femme fatale would be lover, Elisa.
João’s voiceover frames the plot – stories within stories – as we move around the continent and the preceding decades but other characters interject from time to time without warning. They all come across as classic unreliable narrators but we cannot be sure.
But it’s André Szankowski’s camera, becoming a metaphorical character, that finds those vital cracks in the surface. Sometimes with slow moving tracking shots, other times adopting obscure angles from more stationary positions, it takes on the role of nosy bystander, often telling a different story.
By the end, just as in life, impressions and approximations merge as one; a quasi truth, perhaps. And the many cruelties, obsessions and heightened passions take second place to João’s overwhelming sense of loss for something that he never had, a past stolen.
Ruiz made the film in exile, of course, almost forty years after fleeing Chile following Pinochet’s military coup. Like all great artists, he catches us off guard with this idiosyncratic but ingenious take on abandonment/displacement.
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