Say what you will about 19th-century literature, they had stories in those days (and stories within stories). None of the 260 books authored by Camilo Castelo Branco (1825-90) is available in English, but this madly prolific Portuguese novelist provided the material for two imposing movie epics: Manoel de Oliveira's 1979 breakthrough, Doomed Love, and now Raul Ruiz's scarcely less remarkable and equally long Mysteries of Lisbon.
Convoluted does not begin to describe this four-and-a-half-hour movie, which, given the filmmaker's straightforward if subtly distanced embrace of Branco's sprawling, three-volume novel, might be called Mysteries of Mysteries of Lisbon. A sort of ethnographic time traveler, Ruiz dramatizes every outrageous plot twist with serene equanimity — treating the hopelessly old-fashioned as the new avant-garde. The tale of the illegitimate “orphan” Pedro's search for his origins is embedded in a thicket of concealed identities, unexpected confessions and madly proliferating nested narratives. Boasting of “coincidences so great no novelist would invent them,” the story advances as it retreats; the movie's most often repeated line is “I'll explain later!”
Adapted from a six-part miniseries (or soap opera) produced by longtime Oliveira associate Paulo Branco for Portuguese TV, Mysteries of Lisbon is a fitting companion to Ruiz's triumphant 1999 adaptation of the thought-unfilmable Time Regained, which, rather than approximate Proust's prose, addressed his modernist use of simultaneous multiple perspectives. As Time Regained was a 20th-century movie about a 20th-century novel, Mysteries of Lisbon is a 21st-century adaptation of a 19th-century chronicle. Placing the very notion of narrative between quotation marks, it's at once matter-of-fact and outlandish, anachronistic and contemporary, a movie of fluid long takes and static compositions in which all of the action might be set within the paper theater given to the young hero by the aristocratic woman who, 20 minutes into the movie, turns out to be his mother and then …
Leisurely and digressive, this generally exhilarating saga (“a storm of misadventures,” per Ruiz) variously suggests Victor Hugo, Stendhal and (thanks in part to the unnatural, emphatic yet uninflected acting) Mexican telenovelas. The score is richly romantic; the period locations are impeccable. Secondary characters come unexpectedly to the fore, as the past perpetually introduces itself into the present. War breaks out — 20 years before the story opens. (Like just about everything in early-19th-century European intellectual history, every event can be traced back to the historical rupture of the French Revolution.)
Mysteries of Lisbon has no shortage of incidental absurdism, although the suggestion that human existence is an enigmatic divine plan carried out by priests and penitents is a reminder that literary surrealism was largely the invention of lapsed Catholics. Slightly less self-effacing than God, Ruiz signals his own presence (if not necessarily his intentions) with some intermittently eccentric camera placement and strategic mirror reflections, repeated scenes of servants spying or eavesdropping on the affairs of the oblivious aristos who employ them, and occasional bouts of hysterical, unmotivated laughter. The ability of characters to recognize each other after lifetime-long separations is a source of humor, as well as mystery: “The winding roads we had to travel, my son, to meet again!” (or to make sense of Branco's master plot).
The more Pedro learns of his past, the more confused and morbidly alienated he becomes. Ultimately, Mysteries cuts its own Gordian knot to wrap with a magnificent, looping closer — a blaze of white light that metaphorically conflates the end of literature, theater and cinema. The nothingness is Olympian. A child is born, a man dies (still living in that child's imagination) and the movie feels majestically disinterested — once set in motion, it hardly cares if you watch.
MYSTERIES OF LISBON | Directed by RAUL RUIZ | Written by CARLOS SABOGA, based on the novel by CAMILO CASTELO BRANCO | Music Box Films | Landmark