Mysteries of Lisbon is a sprawling 19th century novel filtered through the mind of a trickster filmmaker, the late Ral Ruiz, who delights in and subverts his wildly complex and melodramatic source material.
Based on a three-volume novel by the Portuguese writer Camilo Castelo Branco, the film tells with invention and wit a Dickensian tale of an orphan (Joo Luis Arrais as a boy and Afonso Pimentel as an adult) who learns the story of his origins with much help from a kindly and enigmatic priest (Adriano Luz).
All this is told at leisure — the film runs 257 minutes, actually trimmed back from its original six-hour length (it was made as a serial for European TV).
The Chilean born, Paris-based director died in August at age 70 after making more than 100 films. He’s probably best known for his 1999 Proust adaptation, Time Regained.
A summary can’t convey Mysteries of Lisbon’s bounty — the welter of characters and themes, subplots and side stories, reversals and revelations, commentary and observation. In Ruiz’s hands, it all becomes a serene, painterly dream punctuated with slyly surreal touches.
As the orphan learns his own story, we are introduced to enough intriguing characters to fuel a soap opera for years: the boy’s long-suffering, aristocratic mother (Maria Joo Bastos) and her monstrous husband (Albano Jernimo); a spurned lover (Clotilde Hesme) endlessly pursuing vengeance ; a low-grade assassin called the Knife-Eater (Ricardo Pereira) who eventually gets rich via the slave trade and piracy. Identities are concealed and revealed as their stories overlap and intertwine.
Of all the film’s mysteries, perhaps the greatest is that of the priest, Father Dinis, who has had a most unexpected past (and don’t jump to easy conclusions).
We are told at the film’s beginning that we are about to see a “diary of suffering,” and Mysteries of Lisbon provides that, but the effect, after four-and-a-quarter hours, is exhilarating.
Cast: Adriano Luz, Maria Joo Bastos, Ricardo Pereira, Afonso Pimentel, Joo Luis Arrais, Clotilde Hesme, Albano Jernimo.
Director: Raul Ruiz.
Screenwriter: Carlos Saboga. Based on the book by Camilo Castelo Branco.
Producer: Paulo Branco.
A Music Box Films release. Running time: 257 minutes. In Portuguese, French and English with English subtitles. Opens Friday Oct. 7 in Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Arts Cinema.