Mysteries of Lisbon: one long movie… that was once a mini-series

12 Aug

Last weekend, I made the trek to the new Film Society Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center and paid my $17 on an extremely humid Sunday evening to watch the 4 hour and 32 minute Raul Ruiz tale, Mysteries of Lisbon.  Before I go any further, I think it is only fair to warn you that this film was originally a mini-series for European television.  Which would explain why I felt like I was watching Masterpiece Theater at Lincoln Center.   That is not an actual complaint for me, just an observation; although, the wealthy older man who complained to me in the concession stand line as I was waiting to buy a box of Goobers during the 20 minute intermission (I got hungry), would beg to differ.  You have to have patience for slow storytelling with this film, and if you are not one who has the fortitude to wait and see where the winding narrative will take you — well, you might just want to wait until you can watch this at home.  With much cheaper candy.  If however, you are tolerant and well-versed in the way foreign films unfold, then you will feel right at home.

This film is a tale of vying narratives, controlled by two vying masculine voices, that of our young protagonist, Pedro (João Luis Arrais), and his care taker, guardian, and teacher, Father Dinis (Adriano Luz) .   Pedro doesn’t know who his parents are and this mystery consumes him.  Apparently, it consumes the other children as well because at least one bully picks on him and calls him a bastard since he has no last name.  There is an altercation with a wooden ball and then Pedro ends up badly injured.  It is actually at this point that the true narratives in the film start, or at least start to take shape and make sense, as we experience, first through Pedro, then through Father Dinis, the story of how Pedro was born.  We meet his parents, his evil maternal grandfather, a servant of his grandfather’s that doubles as a paid assassin; and if that isn’t enough, we learn about Father Dinis and his origins and life before he took his vows (he plays three roles in the film which works very well, it isn’t as it might be in an old Disney film).  Once Pedro has become a man (played as an adult by Afonso Pimentel), we encounter the paid assassin as a constant in his life, along with a maligned countess and a string of nobility.  It’s almost like a combination of Charles Dickens and a Jane Austen novel.

I do not want to say too much as it is more fun to hear the story unfold as you watch it.  And if you are sitting there for hours, quite honestly, you need something to look forward to.  Raul Ruiz is a master storyteller.  He’s also a film professor and a Chilean exile who lives in France.  He’s had decades of experience, working for a good deal of that time in Europe, doing both television and film.

The lyrical feel of the mise-en-scène in the film is reinforced through the cinematography that evokes the setting of an unreal fairy tale unfolding before your eyes.  This particular fairy tale is masculine.  Most of the stories that are told belong to the male characters, with the exception of  two strong female voices that are heard, Pedro’s mother, Angela de Lima (Maria João Bastos) and his love interest as an adult, Elisa de Montfort (Clotilde Hesme).  Ironic that both these women are heard but Pedro never is able to contain either woman in his narrative.   Also the two actresses resemble each other enough to make Pedro’s love of Elisa as an adult more than a bit incestuous, especially since Elisa is so much older than Pedro.

One thing I will note, throughout the narrative, for our protagonist, Pedro, three items travel with him throughout his life:  a drawing an English tourist did of him at the beginning of the film that is framed for him, later, after he’s been hurt, a small theater tableau that he uses to comment on the story as it unfolds (it’s significant to notice when this theater appears as it tends to be at a key point in the narrative each time for Pedro), and finally, the wooden ball, that, got the narrative rolling, so to speak.  As these are constant symbols in the film, it is important you ask yourself, what exactly do they represent to the narrative, to Pedro, and to the ending of film.

Here is the trailer for the film.

Watch my Vlog Review on YouTube.

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