Blu-ray Review: ‘Mysteries of Lisbon’ Marks Final Triumph For Raúl Ruiz

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CHICAGO – In many ways, 2011 was the year of startlingly successful throwbacks. Who could’ve guessed that Woody Allen, Tom Cruise and The Muppets would revive their crowd-pleasing appeal? How many moviegoing soothsayers predicted that Michel Hazanavicius’ melodrama, “The Artist,” would become an Oscar front-runner that proves the silent art form is far from dead?

And who could’ve possibly dreamed that veteran Chilean filmmaker Raúl Ruiz would end his extraordinary 48-year-long career with a staggering epic that revitalized the storytelling techniques of a nineteenth century Portuguese novelist? “Mysteries of Lisbon” is a direct rebuke to the conventional narratives that follow uncluttered three-act structures. At four-and-a-half hours, this film preserves the scope and density of its source material, while utilizing modern technology to make every frame thrillingly cinematic. Blu-ray Rating: 5.0/5.0
Blu-ray Rating: 5.0/5.0

Author Camilo Castelo Branco’s illegitimate birth and upbringing as an orphan are clearly reflected in the young character placed at the center of his 1852 novel. Like many Dickensian protagonists, Pedro da Silva (João Luís Arrais) was born an outcast in society. At the age of 14, he begins to actively search for his parents, and starts to receive clues from the kind yet maddeningly evasive Father Dinis (wonderfully played by Claude Rains lookalike Adriano Luz). After a bruising altercation with an embittered bully, Pedro awakens to find a toy theatre left for him by a woman he quickly identifies as his mother, the wealthy countess Ângela (Maria João Bastos). Her tragic tale is merely the first of many tangled story threads linked by themes of deception, dual identities, passion, jealousy, vengeance and heartache. An opening title card warns the viewer that what they are about to witness is a “diary of suffering,” yet the film itself is never depressing, and certainly never dull. Since Branco’s tale was in the form of a serial, it is perhaps best viewed in its extended, six-part miniseries format. As a single film experience, there’s perhaps too much to take in on a coherent narrative level, but cinephiles won’t mind being overwhelming by the awe-inspiring brilliance of Ruiz’s craft.

João Luís Arrais stars in Raúl Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon.
João Luís Arrais stars in Raúl Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon.
Photo credit: Music Box Films

As young Pedro views the figures on his miniature stage, they start to enact events occurring in the outside world until the realms of theatre and reality fuse together. Ruiz’s use of long, fluid takes and theatrical blocking give every scene a heightened and hypnotic tone that somehow never becomes claustrophobic. Cinematographer André Szankowski glides majestically through each space as if he were viewing the Art Institute’s Thorne Rooms from the god-like perspective of Pedro. Ruiz’s dismissal of standard editing techniques allow the camerawork, lighting and framing to create various painterly images within a single take. Szankowski’s lens also manages to capture the faces of servants and other eavesdroppers whose expressions silently comment on the action. There’s a wrenching sequence of a childbirth that abruptly ends in tragedy, as well as a stunning seven-minute shot of an inconsequential duel that proves to have shattering repercussions.

The absence of a central conflict may suggest that “Lisbon” lacks any sense of dramatic momentum, but that is entirely not the case. It’s the poignant and provocative ways in which the interconnected plots mirror and refract each other that ultimately gives the film such a powerful cumulative impact. Though the ensemble is uniformly superb, and contains a few instantly familiar stars (such as the pouty beauty Léa Seydoux), there are three standouts worth highlighting. Ricardo Pereira makes an indelible impression as the formidable Alberto de Magalhães, while Clotilde Hesme delivers a magnificent portrayal of Elisa de Montfort, a woman who can barely contain her rage at the world that has failed her. And as the adult Pedro, Afonso Pimentel embodies the broken heart of Branco’s meditation on unfulfilled desires and eternal regrets. With its immaculate mis-en-scène and playful dashes of surrealism, “Mysteries of Lisbon” is a work of transcendent power and profound artistry that will be remembered as a landmark in cinema history. It left me wishing that more filmmakers would attempt to tackle audacious narrative puzzles like this one, but then again, there aren’t many filmmakers like Ruiz.

Mysteries of Lisbon was released on Blu-ray and DVD on Jan. 17, 2012.
Mysteries of Lisbon was released on Blu-ray and DVD on Jan. 17, 2012.
Photo credit: Music Box Films

The film is presented in flawless 1080p High Definition (with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio), and includes two splendid interviews with Ruiz, who died in August of 2011. In a 28-minute radio segment, the director reveals his dislike of American dramaturgy and its preoccupation with “focalized struggles.” His nostalgia for the sprawling tales in classic literature is clearly reflected in “Lisbon,” which has Ruiz’s favored tree-like plot structure. A 37-minute video interview finds the director exhilarated by the new cinematic tools that he utilized so effectively in the film, such as the HD photography that allowed crystalline backgrounds to enhance the narrative. He claims that close-ups are for dermatologists, and avoided them at all costs with the help of a Panavision Genesis camera, which opened up the possibilities for complex tracking shots.

Ruiz admits that the five-and-a-half hour TV version has a more discernible narrative arrow, while the theatrical cut is closer to “polyphony,” with characters vanishing and re-entering the narrative in a haze of dreamlike ambiguity. What’s perhaps most impressive is Ruiz’s spirit of experimentation during production. He improvised a sequence in which an illicit affair is viewed through various curtains and doorways, hinting that the eyes of servants were ever-present. The sudden reappearance of a key character late in the film was entirely Ruiz’s idea as well. Though it provides an extraordinary capper to Ruiz’s great career, it’s flat-out tragic that “Lisbon” was to be his last film to see completion prior to his death. One can only imagine what Ruiz could’ve done with Branco’s follow-up novel, “Father Dinis’ Black Book.”
Rounding out the extras are a brief interview with Saboga, who likens the author’s original three-volume serial to a Russian doll, a 14-minute discussion on Branco’s work, and a booklet containing essays by Ruiz and Jonathan Rosenbaum. Yet my favorite extra, by far, is an excerpt of a critic program that I would love to see aired in this country. It features six excitable critics who participate in roundtable discussions of the latest releases, while viewed by a studio audience. Most excitable of all is Philippe Rouyer of “Positif et Psychologies” magazine, who dissects Szankowski’s camerawork with the play-by-play commentary of a sports anchor. Rarely has a cinephile’s passion for the art form been so exuberantly conveyed. I would’ve gotten a kick out of watching the rest of the episode, where the same group tweaks titles like “Paranormal Activity 2.”

‘Mysteries of Lisbon’ is released by Music Box Films and stars Adriano Luz, Maria João Bastos, Ricardo Pereira, Clotilde Hesme, Afonso Pimentel, João Luís Arrais, Albano Jerónimo, João Baptista, Martin Loizillon, Julian Alluguette, Rui Morisson, Joana de Verona and Carloto Cotta. It was written by Carlos Saboga and directed by Raúl Ruiz. It was released on Jan. 17, 2012. It is not rated. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

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