Mysteries of Lisbon
A magically moving picture, and a fitting swan song
Raúl Ruiz died last week at 70, although the 100 or so films he made conferred upon him the authority of a man twice his age. He was born in Chile and based in Paris, but was the sort of director who operated as a kind of citizen of the world. His final film, for instance, is “Mysteries of Lisbon,’’ which opens today at the Brattle Theatre and is firmly situated in the manors, forests, and broken hearts of 19th-century Portugal, with late jaunts to Italy and France. The geographic locations aren’t as crucial as the artistic mood, which is high romanticism.
It’s not that nearly every shot seems painterly. It’s that light, color, and framing turn familiar still images into tableaux vivants of a sort. With Ruiz though, the studious, stilted air of those re-creations dissipates. It’s not a stunt. When two cousins sit in a dimly lit room playing cards and one - the sexier cousin - regards his hand while slouching toward the camera with his legs apart, it’s both utterly natural and clearly composed. This is the general case for images in a lot of films. But with Ruiz - and this has often been true, even in his modest enterprises - the casual way he practices difficult cinema is breathtaking.
“Mysteries of Lisbon’’ brings us far inside oil-on-canvas in a way that isn’t imitative. It’s simply, magically a moving picture, what a movie in the 1800s would look like. (It might also have lasted for four hours and 32 minutes, as this one does.) Ruiz is fond of language and the potential to turn an easy story into origami. The film begins as the tale of a teenage orphan - played by Joao Luis Arrais and, much later, as a young adult by Afonso Pimentel - who learns that his name is Pedro and that his parents lived lovelorn tragedies. But soon the film has taken up with a handful of no less ancillary liaisons, affairs, and trysts - among marquises, counts, and countesses, one of whom is his mother, Angela (Maria João Bastos). The Catholic school priest, Father Dinis (Adriano Luz), who brings Angela back into Pedro’s life, has a back story. So does a monk (José Manuel Mendes) at the convent where Angela resides.
The action is a product of explication. Very little here can truly happen unless a character, as a narrator, tells someone it has. Across time and nationality, they all have some bearing on each other’s fates. Ruiz worked from a script that Carlos Saboga adapted from the novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, the prolific Portuguese writer who in the 19th century tried a little of a lot. The film feels as much under the influences of Victor Hugo and Branco’s contemporary, Charles Dickens. Pedro has a secret benefactor. The priest was once a gypsy, and one of the counts - the sexiest one - was a menace for hire. And when love goes south, everyone turns to the church.
A 272-minute running time didn’t seem to concern Ruiz. The movie isn’t afraid to feel long. My plan to spend the intermission cataloging the personnel never happened. I suspected it wouldn’t matter, and, sure enough, at the start of the second half, when the monk says to the priest, “I have a story to tell you,’’ all you can do is sit back and wonder where he’s going with this. Once he finishes a half-hour later, all you can think is, “Has anyone here not changed his name?’’ What you savor in these flashbacks, in addition to the sheer formal brilliance - all the subtlety Ruiz could manage with a camera - is how intense the performances all are. Take Albano Jerónimo, who plays a count and in one party sequence repeatedly jabs his tongue into his cheek. It’s a terrific flourish that says both this guy’s a jerk and he’s insecure about how much of a jerk to be.
Ruiz was a certain kind of critic’s filmmaker, a director of ideas, an artist who followed his bliss no matter where in time or any given genre it led, who never relied on the usual movie language to speak. This new movie demonstrates an exciting aversion to the old shot-reverse shot relationship. Once, with an eavesdropping sequence, he subverts it. Ruiz was always inspired, and his inspiration will be deeply missed. In the meantime, there’s this film which is both the perfect introduction and a fitting goodbye.