Recalling his “Time Regained” from a decade ago, Raul Ruiz’s head-spinning “Mysteries of Lisbon” is a period drama of contemporary import — and of the highest order. A handsomely mounted adaptation of the like-titled Portuguese novel, Ruiz’s 4 1/2-hour epic establishes the essential ambiguity of its chameleonic characters from the get-go and proceeds thereby, with riveting results and revelations that continue right to the end. Prostitution, murder, romance, war and spiritual malaise slot the pic firmly in the melodramatic tradition, in which it sparkles. Euro TV airings of the recent past oughtn’t diminish the appeal of “Mysteries” at fests worldwide.
“It started as a frivolous game, and ended as a sordid bourgeois drama,” says one of the movie’s countless characters in voiceover near the end — and he could well be describing the kaleidoscopic pic itself, set mostly in 19th-century Lisbon but taking worthy detours to Spain, France, Italy and Brazil. Deemed a “diary of suffering” in the opening titles, the film’s marathon narrative — distilled only slightly, it seems, from Camilo Castelo Branco’s gargantuan, Dickensian tome — indeed favors psychological turmoil above all else.
The first of several v.o. narrators is Joao (Joao Luis Arrais), who recalls when he was 14, living with priests in a Lisbon orphanage-cum-boarding school. Not knowing whence he came, the illegitimately conceived boy suffers his peers’ petty humiliations and, with the help of kindly Father Dinis (Adriano Luz), eventually fulfills his dreams of meeting his mother, Angela (Maria Joao Bastos), the countess of Santa Barbara, who appears abundantly fearful of her controlling husband (Albano Jeronimo).
Flashbacks reveal the end of Angela’s love affair with Joao’s father when the man is shot by the hired gun of the Marquis of Montezelos (Rui Morisson), who forces Angela into a convent. The Marquis then urges a swarthy, burping gypsy known as the Knife-Eater (Ricardo Pereira) to kill Angela’s baby when it’s born. Obviously, the assassin fails, but many other narrative developments surprise in the manner of the twistiest soaps. To name but one: The crass Knife-Eater emerges, hilariously, as a nobleman.
Dealing largely with pain as passed through generations, screenwriter Carlos Saboga’s sprawling, circuitous tale is also enjoyably self-reflexive, as when, at the start of the pic’s second half, one character tells another, “I have a long story to tell you.” The film’s latter portions seem at first to have only Father Dinis in common with the earlier ones, but, partly via the presence of a French heiress, Elisa de Monfort (Clotilde Hesme), Ruiz’s many threads are sewn together satisfyingly in the end.
Throughout, the director’s command of his opulent mise-en-scene keeps the viewer glued to the screen. Amazingly, Ruiz’s images are never gratuitously beautiful: There’s a particularly unforgettable shot from under a glass table that illustrates how seemingly torn shreds of narrative can come together in sharp focus.
Accessible and engaging even as it’s toying with inscrutable secrets and lies, “Mysteries of Lisbon” benefits immeasurably from its impeccable production values, which immerse the audience in a ravishing aristocratic milieu. As nearly everything in the film has a twist, even the sharp HD lensing by Andre Szankowski gets warped when it comes to rendering the subjectivity of fevered Joao — who, appropriately, turns out to have another name.