Manuel on the Island of Wonders (1985, Raoul Ruiz)

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“A tourist.”

I was planning to watch this anyway, but not as a memorial screening. Low-quality copy of this three-episode miniseries. You can see through the dubbed videotape murk and the MPEG blocks that much of the lighting and composition is probably wonderful (and the music score too good to be consigned to a lost TV-movie) – hope there will be an official release some day. This shows no compromise to the commercial requirements of television, just as twisty as the great City of Pirates, and similarly featuring featuring ships, pirate ghosts, islands, children, plot paradoxes and murder.

Part 1: Manoel’s Destinies

A narrator sets up the time-travel theme right away.
“I’m called ‘long ago.’ This story took place in the past, but I’m sure it will happen again soon. That’s why I chose to tell it to you in the present.”

Seven-year-old Manoel is on his way to school the morning after his family’s jewelry was stolen in the night, when he hears whispered voices, sidetracks into a courtyard and meets himself, six years older. Older Manoel says six years ago he was on his way to school, sidetracked into the courtyard and met a fisherman in a cave, went boating with him, came home and his life changed. His parents’ hopes in their son were shattered, his mother died, and he went off to work after dropping out of school. But he sidetracked into a courtyard, met the fisherman again, and boated backwards through time, retrieved his family’s jewels from the sea, and met his seven-year-old self.

So, young Manoel continues to school, follows the advice of older Manoel, becomes an extreme overachiever, and a few years later his father dies. So he visits the fisherman, goes back and yells his young self. “This time he chooses caution: he must ignore the fisherman’s call, but he mustn’t succeed at school.” At the end of the day, his parents are fine, but the townspeople find a dead boy on the beach: older Manoel.

Part 2: The Picnic of Dreams

More tense-twisting from the narrator, and Manoel’s class is on a field trip, literally to a field, where the teacher wants them to attempt to fall asleep and dream a hospital, which might become real. This doesn’t work, and Manoel walks through the dream forest and meets a large man who talks to trees.

The giant takes a coin from Manoel, and with it they swap bodies. Now Manoel in the man’s body must reclaim the coin, breaks into his own house at night and grabs it from his piggybank. A more straightforward story than the other parts.

Part 3: The Little Chess Champion

After his mother dies (guess he failed to save her through time-travel) Manoel is sent to live with his aunt, who lives with her son and two nephews in a museum. “The staff had moved out because of ghosts.”

Manoel plays violent games with the servant’s sons Pedro and Paulo, and visits the funhouse on Elephant Island with his cousins and a mysterious sea captain – but that may have been a dream. He meets seven-year-old Marylina, a genetically-engineered super-child who’s now the world chess champion and has a fiancee named Rock who has exchanged brains with a famed pianist.

There’s levitation, shadow plays, and my favorite visual effect, a bit of perspective-play with a hand coming through a keyhole. The captain takes Pedro into the shadow world, so Manoel visits the chess girl for help. But she and her fiancee have been discovering secret codes hidden in the structures of things. My favorite: “The Eiffel Tower is an iron code that translates French body odor into perfume.” The Captain comes and steals more children into his shadow world. It’s a completely insane episode.

The Captain and his demise:

“Now after all these years, when I remember my childhood, I think these things were just my imagination.”

This has played in different forms (a four-episode version, a theatrical film) in different places, including at Cannes. The acting credits are listed without character names, but someone figured out that Teresa Madruga (of Joao Monteiro’s Silvestre) plays Manoel’s mother. Fernando Heitor and Diogo Doria (an Oliveira regular, also in Love Torn in Dream) may play his father and teacher. The rest is a mystery to me.

F. Daly:

Writing or filming for children can sometimes bring a person straight to the source of their art. Having to perceptibly adapt their style confronts them with what must be included. Manoel leaves us with the essential Ruiz, the audio-visual companion to his extraordinary book Poetics of Cinema. Its dizzying narrative fold-over-fold methodology creates a labyrinthine temporal structure.

Also watched a TV episode called Exiles from 1988, which provides a nice career summary, focusing on Ruiz’s relationship with Chile and identity as an exile within his film stories.

The Great Man:

And something called Screen Pioneers (episode 3) from 1985 – an eccentric biography program, purporting to be from the future (like Time Trumpet) looking back on our present, and on this semi-unknown character named Raoul Ruiz. Written by Michael Powell expert Ian Christie – I’ve listened to some of his Criterion audio commentaries.
It’s only ten minutes long, plays like an extended intro to…

Return of a Library Lover (1983)

A first-person travel essay about Ruiz’s first return to Chile in ten years. Everything seems the same as when he left (it’s first-person narrated), except he notices a single pink book is missing from his shelf, a book he decides holds “the key to what happened on that night of Pinochet’s coup.” He interviews friends (including a “renowned library constructor”), and checks the bars. He talks to a bookseller. “I deduced that he couldn’t speak Spanish anymore and constantly had to check his own subtitles and translate them laboriously back.” What started out as a personal slideshow has turned into a full-fledged Ruiz movie. The book is discovered at the end, by contemporary Chilean poet Juan Uribe Echevarria.

My favorite line, a casual, matter-of-fact note on subjective memory: “Apart from having shrunk a little, the house was still intact.”

“From the Mayans I’ve inherited the knack of changing my childhood
just as one changes one’s native country.”

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One thought on “Manuel on the Island of Wonders (1985, Raoul Ruiz)

  1. Hello Brandon, Can you tell me how I can get a DVD copy of Manuel on the Island of Wonders? William

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