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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How Ken Loach's radical vision won him a second Palm d'Or

In Loach's films, authenticity is everything, and when his quest for realism pays off, there's nothing as raw in all of cinema.

On 22 May, at the age of 79, Ken Loach became the first British director to win the top prize twice at the Cannes Film Festival. His previous Palme d’Or, in 2006, was for The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which dramatised the British occupation of Ireland and the origins of the IRA. This time, he won for I, Daniel Blake, the story of an ailing carpenter wrongly declared fit for work by the callous UK benefits system. No wonder Ed Vaizey, the culture minister, could issue only the most grudging acknowledgement, alluding vaguely to “Brit success!” in a tweet that failed to mention either Loach or the film.

The actor and Cannes jury member Donald Sutherland, on the other hand, called I, Daniel Blake “an absolutely terrific movie that resonates in your heart and soul”. It was an incongruous delight to see Loach posing before swarms of paparazzi. He usually disdains such frivolities; he might be red but he’s hardly red carpet. “As a film-maker, you’re forever involved in things that constantly inflate their own importance,” he once complained. Artifice, hyperbole and celebrity hold no appeal. Even film-making itself is full of irritating impediments. “If Loach could make a film without a camera, he would,” said Trevor Griffiths, who collaborated with him on Fatherland (1986).

Authenticity is everything. Unusually, Loach shoots in sequence, even if it requires moving back and forth at great cost between locations. In the days of celluloid, he would forfeit much of his fee to buy more film stock so that his beloved improvisations could roll on and on. When I visited the set of Carla’s Song near Loch Lomond in 1995, Loach gave the actor Robert Carlyle a good-natured ticking off for speaking to me between takes. “I’d rather he didn’t talk to anyone,” he said, “because then he’ll start thinking about things in terms of technique and who he really is, and it’ll all become conscious.”

When the quest for realism pays off, there is nothing as raw in all cinema. Think of the chilling attack on a family home by loan sharks in his 1993 drama Raining Stones, one of the films that began his most successful period, or the climax of Cathy Come Home, made for the BBC in 1966 and arguably his most groundbreaking film. As Cathy (Carol White) has her children taken off her by social workers and police, Loach films the entire traumatic episode in a wide shot with a hidden camera to preserve the reality. The movie led directly to the founding of Crisis.

Conversely, Loach at his worst can be one of the most simplistic sentimentalists out there. The characterisation of the salt-of-the-earth heroes in recent films such as Jimmy’s Hall and Route Irish, or the pantomime-villain Brits in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, shows what happens when action is overpowered by agenda.

Born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, Loach read law at Oxford but became seduced by theatre directing and acting: he was in a revue for which Dudley Moore composed the music, and understudied in the West End in One Over the Eight. He joined the BBC in 1963, where he brought extra earthiness to Z-Cars before finding his ideal outlet in The Wednesday Play slot that went out after the news. “We were very anxious for our plays not to be considered dramas but as continuations of the news,” he said. He made ten TV films under that banner but it was with his second movie, Kes, in 1969, that he took flight, proving that the gritty and the lyrical need not be mutually exclusive.

His politics was fully formed by this point. Though he has rejected claims that he is Marxist or Trotskyist, he admits that the analysis to which he turned after his disillusionment with Harold Wilson in the mid-1960s was a Marxist one. “The idea of a class analysis was the one we identified with,” he said of himself and his collaborators the producer Tony Garnett and the writer Jim Allen. “What we realised was that social democrats and Labour politicians were simply acting on behalf of the ruling class, protecting the interests of capital.”

This stance was consolidated by a series of run-ins in the 1980s, when he saw his work banned and thwarted by political forces. The transmission of his four-part 1983 television documentary Questions of Leadership, which asked whether the trade union leadership was adequately representing its members’ interests, was delayed and blocked by Labour string-pulling. Which Side Are You On? – a documentary about the miners’ strike – was rejected because of footage showing police violence.

Since his full-time return to cinema in the early 1990s, acclaim has eclipsed controversy. Even if he had not won a Palme d’Or, his stamp is all over other directors who have won that award in the past 20 years. The Belgian social realists Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Rosetta, The Child) have never hidden their debt to him, while recent winners such as Jacques Audiard (Dheepan) and Cristian Mingiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days) exhibit his mixture of directness, compassion and realism.

If there is anything that defines him, it is his fight, which has made it possible for him to remain one of cinema’s angriest and most effective voices. “In the long term, I guess I’m optimistic because people always fight back,” he said. “The reason to make films is just to let people express that, to share that kind of resilience because that’s what makes you smile. It’s what makes you get up in the morning.”

“I, Daniel Blake” is released later this year

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 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad