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Mysteries of Lisbon

Posted by martinteller on April 12, 2012

My previous viewings of Raoul (or Raúl) Ruiz have been very intriguing but slightly unsatisfying.  The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting and Three Crowns of the Sailor are amusing experiments that are delightful in concept and clever in execution but don’t make for fulfilling experiences.  In a way, Mysteries of Lisbon could be described in the same terms.  But it is so dazzling and masterful in its construction that it becomes something truly special.

In this epic (4 1/2 hour) Dickensian tale, we start with Joao. a young boy who slowly learns of his previously unknown origins.  Like Saragossa Manuscript, the film is a labyrinth of flashbacks and sidetracks, layered stories within stories.  Joao’s elaborate family history is loaded with multiple identities, secret romances, doublings and triplings, outrageous coincidence.  Ruiz frequently comments on the nature of storytelling.  The central character is not Joao as much as Father Denis, an almost mythic figure who seems to magically appear at opportune moments.  Witnesses are prominent, servants peering through windows and listening at doorways (often we are reminded of who is inside the story and who is outside).

And then there’s the most telling witness of all, the camera.  The impossible witness, looking from places where no man could be, roaming and gliding and moving through walls.  With superimpositions and other technical tricks, Ruiz will show you a character in the background in focus and a character in the foreground in focus, separated by an out-of-focus object.  We see what the lens wants us to see.  It’s an intricate dance between the camera and the actors, ever reconfiguring themselves into more striking compositions… gorgeous light and stunning framing evoking the Old Masters (like Greenaway, Ruiz may have a thing for Vermeer).  At times the characters appear to be trying to escape from the camera, or even imploring it with a glance to set them free.

Because they are trapped by the story and the storyteller and the instrument of the storyteller, just as much as they are trapped by social conventions and petty jealousies.  Even the elaborate costuming and set design hem them in… at one point, two characters have a conversation under tables!  When the story doesn’t go the way Joao wants it to, he rages against the narrative devices around him… the paintings on the wall (ubiquitous paintings!! each with its own story to tell) or the toy theater, that resembles the one in Fanny & Alexander.

It’s a stunningly beautiful film and there were easily 50 frames that I thought would make magnificent screenshots.  It’s thematically rich and marvelous in construction, I feel it would take several viewings to fully appreciate everything that’s going on.  And in the end it even takes a hokey plot device and transforms it into something exquisite.  The only thing holding me back from the “Masterpiece” rating at this point is a lack of emotional involvement.  But there’s a strong possibility I was too focused on the astonishing craftsmanship to get involved with the emotional content.  At any rate, I’ll be purchasing the Blu-Ray so I’ll have ample chance to discover and rediscover its hidden wonders.  Rating: Great


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