Friday, March 4, 2011

Mysteries of Lisbon

For people in the know, Chilean born director Raul Ruiz is something of an important figure. He's been churning out quite a few "visionary" and "experimental" flicks since his start in the the late 60s--112 of them to be exact. A recent Sight and Sound article ranks him with the likes of Werner Herzog, David Lynch, Luis Bunuel, Tod Browning and Federico Fellini as one of "The Wild Bunch"-- 50 directors who are consistently willing to push boundaries. How many people actually know this though, I have no idea. Probably not many. I certainly didn't, but that didn't help me from getting hit by a giant dose of Ruiz in the form of his latest movie--the 4 1/2 hour long Mysteries of Lisbon.

It's a bit of a shame that what I remember most about Mysteries of Lisbon (I saw it about a month ago) is its length. It's quite an impressive movie; an expansive costume drama that's as elaborate as anything by Ophüls or Visconti. Mysteries, which is based on a sprawling 19th century novel of the same name by Camilo Castelo Branco, owes a lot to Ophüls especially. It has the same fluid camerawork and emphasis on desire and fate. Also, given that Ruiz recently undertook the demanding task of adapting Proust's Time Regained, the formidable scale of this project as well as its exploration of memory are familiar territory for him.

The movie starts with Pedro de Silva, the film's narrator, as a 14 year old boy in a catholic boarding school. There he gets bullied by his peers for having no name or family (that he knows of). But when he falls sick, his mother, Angela, makes an appearance at his bed side. It turns out that she's been imprisoned in her own house by a jealous husband who doesn't want her to have anything to do with this child from her previous lover.

Much of the first half of the movie is spent on two stories. One, which is quite interesting, involves Angela, her son, and her terrible current husband. The other, which is less so, is the tale of forbidden love between Angela and Pedro's father. I must admit--no disrespect the the vast majority of classic literature--that stories of forbidden love are inherently boring. They tend to presume that were the virginal maiden to escape her father's grasp, she would find lasting bliss with her lover. I haven't seen Blue Valentine yet, but I believe the common knowledge today is that two people who love each other will inevitably spend the rest of their lives torturing each other. In any case, when two hours had gone by and we were given a chance to stretch our legs during intermission, I was worried that Mysteries of Lisbon didn't have enough intriguing mysteries to show for itself, that it was merely a well-presented collection of fairly standard tropes from 19th century literature. 

Not to worry. Things pick up in the second half as stories open up like russian dolls to reveal more stories within stories. The narrative isn't too complicated--no one's entering the seventh dream layer--but there's much to keep track of; narrators change, identities are altered and concealed, various coincidences and chance meetings arise, grudges are formed, secrets are kept. Death, birth, and happiness are turned into distant memories by the inexorable passage of time. Pedro, as can be seen by the way he manipulates little paper cutouts on his miniature theater stage, tries to maintain control, but he never seems to have much success. Better to just sit back, let someone else expertly move the pieces of paper around, and enjoy.  


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