Every year I look forward to the Atlanta Film Festival, getting increasingly excited until some offensive act causes me to sit out the second half. This time I was thrilled to see Ruiz’s five-hour Mysteries of Lisbon on the program, but pissed once it started that they were projecting it from DVD. What kind of rinky-dink festival thinks that is an acceptable practice, and without even an apology or excuse? Picture was muddy and macro-blocky, the color desaturated compared even to DVD screenshots I found online. When I complained about the same issue two years ago after a screening of Beket, an AFF official left a comment counterintuitively stating “screening 35mm prints is cheaper for us to do than any other format we use.” I hope he returns this year to explain the Lisbon situation. Also, the dude from Turner who introduced the film called Ruiz, the seventy year old director of over a hundred films “up and coming,” with no knowing wink or chuckle to imply he wasn’t serious.
The movie was very good, worth taking the time off at 1:00pm on a weekday to see in its entirety, but not my favorite Ruiz movie by a long shot, lacking the anarchist humor of That Day and the shorts I’ve seen. If not for a well-placed deep focus shot here, an anamorphic lens-twisting there, I could’ve believe that any of a handful of dedicated European art directors had adapted the 150-year-old novel into this massive period costume miniseries.
Young Joao is having a fit, deathly ill, dreams he sees his mother, whom he’s never met. When he awakens, Father Dinis of the orphanage begins to tell him about his mother, Countess Angela who lives nearby, forbidden by her domineering husband from even seeing her illicit son. The movie takes on a flashback structure that reminds me slightly of The Saragossa Manuscript, even with the storytellers interrupting themselves to go to sleep, then resuming the next day. It seems Angela was in love with a young man (Don Pedro) whom her father wouldn’t let her marry, she got pregnant, and the baby was to be killed – but the assassin (Knife Eater) cut a deal with a passing gypsy (the priest in disguise) and sold the child.
Mysterious gypsy, left, with Knife Eater:
Back in the present, an outspoken Brazilian (Alberto de Magalhaes, formerly known as Knife Eater) is entering high society. Awesome scene when some guy demands a duel and Alberto straight kicks his ass, the fight shot through the window of the priest’s passing carriage. Angela’s husband, who’d married her despite the priest’s ghostly warning that he would be marrying “a dead slave” since her heart was lost to the murdered father of her stolen child, had become a tyrant who openly carried on an affair with Eugenia the maid and locked Angela in a single room. But the husband gets sick and dies, repenting first to the priest. Oh, and priest, while you’re here, an old monk named Alvaro wants to talk to you, reveal that he’s your father and give you the skull of his wife Silvina, your mother, to take home with you. Flashing back to a scene of the priest’s birth (and mother’s death), we get an excellent long take, following the nervous father from room to room. Knife Eater, in an unexplained coincidence (probably detailed in the miniseries version), marries the housekeeper who once tormented Angela.
I can’t remember who this is – found the screenshots online:
Another sidetrack story, as Elise de Montfort (Clotilde Hesme of Regular Lovers and Love Songs) arrives, and the meddling priest visits to tell her about her mother Blanche, who was adored by the priest, and also Benoit (son of the nobleman who watched over the priest) and a colonel whose life the other two men had saved, Ernest Lacroze (Ruiz regular Melvil Poupaud) – Benoit wins, marries the girl and they have two kids – Elise and her brother who died recently in a duel. A grown Joao, now called Pedro da Silva, loves Elise, but she says to earn her love he needs to avenge her brother’s death, caused by the wicked Alberto de Magalhaes. He returns to Lisbon from France after hearing of his mother’s death in the convent where she’d been living since her husband died. Joao/Pedro challenges Alberto, who won’t fight, tells Pedro that Alberto was the would-be assassin the day Pedro was born, who reformed and turned the money the gypsy/priest had paid for the boy’s life into a fortune, says Elise is always sending infatuated young men to kill him.
Poor Joao’s mother, with priest in the background:
Anyway, probably some other stuff happens, and Pedro gives up and sets sail for Tangiers – seems to be dying at the end, dictating his life story, the movie looping back to his illness at the beginning, making me think perhaps he died in the orphanage never meeting his mother, imagining the whole rest of the movie in a five-hour fever dream. Also in both bookend scenes is his puppet theater, which the movie uses to illustrate the scenes or to set up new ones, and a painting that comes to life in a weird Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting tableau moment.
One of my favorite recurring events in the movie is that during many of the major scenes, the lead characters’ servants are shown blatantly listening in, sometimes in the foreground while the conversations are distant from the camera. I’m not sure what it added up to, all the shifting identities and vendettas and love affairs and parental secrets, besides being an entertaining bunch of stories. And for a movie with Mysteries in the title, everything is pretty well explained by the end.
Lots of writing on this online. More than one mention of Great Expectations, which occurred to me too. M. Koresky’s article is my favorite:
The nun who was a countess. The priest who was a soldier. The nobleman who was a thief. The poet who was a bastard. Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon is a costume drama in more ways than one. … Though it may seem daunting, the size of the film is its chief pleasure. There’s so much room to parry and maneuver, so many doors (some literal) to unlock, secrets and coincidences to be in thrall to. … Whether we’re seeing a death or a regeneration, a dream or a remembrance, the final images of Mysteries of Lisbon, filtered through an amber haze of memory, unites all of the film’s disparate strands in one delirious, cinematic consciousness.