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9 December 2011updated 14 Sep 2021 3:46pm

Mysteries of Lisbon (PG)

Intricate storytelling has never looked so good.

By Ryan Gilbey

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.

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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.