Mysteries of Lisbon (PG)

Intricate storytelling has never looked so good.

Mysteries of Lisbon (PG)
dir: Raúl Ruiz

Ordinarily, I scribble notes when watching a movie. The work of the Chilean director Raúl Ruiz, who died in August this year, demands a more flexible approach. In the case of his pen­ultimate film, Mysteries of Lisbon, I gave up on the note-taking and instead drew Venn diagrams, flow charts and curved arrows to keep abreast of: a) what was happening, b) which character had deigned to tell us about it and c) what their relationship was to everyone else in the film. Closely following the feverish jottings in my notebook, I should now be able to build a jaunty lean-to or a rocket to the moon.

Carlos Saboga adapted Mysteries of Lisbon from the 19th-century novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, but I wonder if there wasn't a phalanx of uncredited scribes or script doctors behind the scenes. All the signs point to a crack screenwriting squad of Russian dolls. Stories nestle within flashbacks, which are secreted deep inside other tales. Voice-over is passed around the cast: man hands on mysteries to man.

The film is narrated initially by a sorrowful-sounding fellow looking back on his childhood at a Portuguese boarding school. We discover that he was an orphan and that his name is João. These apparent facts are then shown to be nothing of the sort. Identity and reality are provisional: many of the film's characters have two or more aliases, and the recurring motif of a toy puppet theatre (think Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander) invites us to remember that it's only a story.

The school's priest, Father Dinis (Adriano Luz), introduces young João (João Luis Arrais) to the mother he thought was dead and then reveals in depth how he chanced on this privileged discovery. To recap: the adult João, who is not really called João, is recalling the time Father Dinis, who was not always called Father Dinis, told him the story of his parentage, which he learned when Don Pedro da Silva (João Baptista) told him (Father Dinis, that is) how he came to impregnate the marquis's daughter Ângela (Maria João Bastos). Do keep up.

That covers roughly the first 30 minutes of this four-and-a-half-hour film, which has been trimmed down from a six-hour miniseries. Not for the last time, we may gaze upon the counts, countesses, marquises and dons and feel some kinship with the scallywags stumbling around the boarding school in a never-ending game of blind man's buff.

The plot contains more forks than a cutlery drawer. Detours include a lengthy flashback to the hedonistic youth of an old monk and an encounter with a conspicuously scarred killer ("My name is Heliodoro but everyone knows me as Knife-Eater"). How do such things pertain to João? All in good time. Ruiz defers our understanding without dampening our interest. It's easy to get swept along by the storytelling, with its elements of fairy tale, soap opera, potboiler and bodice-ripper, or to forget that each subplot is part of a larger canvas, a whole tapestry, even, until Ruiz applies the last brushstroke, the final stitch.

Central to the picture's success is André Szan­kowski's cinematography. Vermeer interiors, Constable landscapes - he does the lot. Most hypnotic are the elaborate ballets that his camera performs to prolong the life of a shot, rendering almost redundant the editor's scissors. Where so many modern films suffer death by a thousand cuts, Ruiz and Szankowski favour the unbroken shot that weaves and dances around the actors. The fluid camerawork preserves the flow of real time and goes some way towards smoothing over the episodic plot.

There are also plenty of Ruiz's characteristic visual distortions - faces exaggerated by their proximity to the camera or an actor talking while the close-up that is rightfully his goes to his reflection in a cup of coffee. One startling effect leaves a crowded ball depleted as though the extras have been vaporised, the better to isolate the protagonists on the dance floor.

The connections between far-flung characters and events emerge over several hours without ever extinguishing the film's enigmas. The sen­sation Ruiz evokes can be compared to a suc­cession of pennies dropping individually, like a fruit machine paying out its jackpot one gleaming coin at a time.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Unholy war

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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism