It wouldn’t be strictly accurate to say that “The Maias: Scenes From Romantic Life” requires viewers to watch paint dry, but there’s certainly a lot of it at rest in Joao Botelho’s boldly stylized Portuguese costumer. Favoring undisguised matte backdrops and an arch performance style to counter the florid melodrama of Eca de Queiroz’s 19th-century source novel, this highbrow soap opera of star-crossed passion, economic downfall and other aristocratic mysteries of Lisbon has visual intrigue to spare, but a distinct case of emotional torpor limits it to festival-curiosity status. To be filed — if not necessarily ranked — between comparable works by Raul Ruiz and Eric Rohmer, Botelho’s film opened on Sept. 11 in its home country and has since played the Rio and Rome fests.
“It seems that this embroidery will never end,” observes one character to another midway through Botelho’s lengthy film. He may be quite literally referring to her ongoing cross-stitch project, but the line serves as a litmus test of sorts: How much viewers snicker in response to it may indicate how sympathetic, or otherwise, they are to Botelho’s precious, artifice-embracing storytelling style. To the unconverted, certainly, “The Maias” will seem a most deliberately embroidered effort — all ersatz ornamentation at the expense of gut feeling, its oil-on-canvas technique similar to that employed by Rohmer in “The Lady and the Duke,” though not quite as exquisitely executed. More receptive viewers will eventually see the bone-dry comedy and slow-creep romanticism that Botelho is aiming for here, though the film still takes nearly an hour to hit its tonal stride.
The pic is weakest at the outset, as an extended black-and-white prologue lays out the eponymous family’s history — one characterized by successive generations of sons raised by lone, wealthy fathers variously betrayed by wandering women. (If any viewers are seeking advance warning that the next two hours of heavily brocaded heartache will not ace the Bechdel Test, there it is.) Several swift peccadilloes and one suicide later, a protagonist is introduced: Noble dreamboat physician Carlos (Graciano Dias), grandson of Lisbon society roue Alfonso da Maia (Joao Perry), who has recently returned to his hometown to set up practice and redeem the tarnished family name.
Waggish narration by Jorge Vaz de Carvalho, reminiscent of a superior device in Miguel Gomes’ sublime “Tabu,” makes it clear upfront that naturalism is not the name of the game here. The whimsy, however, is stiff and Joao Ribeiro’s digital lensing initially unequal to the distressed monochrome aesthetic intended by the helmer. Things improve as the screen shifts to fragile, antique-hued color, and the narrative steps into Carlos’ social whirl — the upper-class vanities and frivolities of which are exemplified by his close friendship with roguish writer Ega (Pedro Ines). His flighty existence is anchored when he falls profoundly in love with Maria Eduarda (Maria Flor, at certain angles recalling the young Julia Roberts), an enigmatic beauty with more than one damaging revelation in her backstory.
The film’s second half is given over to their impossible, mutually possessive love affair, though Botelho still addresses it in terms more intellectual than sensual; the film maintains its stance of half-amused observation even as the narrative careers into anguished absurdity. Life, we are essentially told, is of little consequence even at its most dire. Later scenes amplify the irony to cruel effect: In one particularly successful comic sequence, the delivery of devastating news is immediately diminished by a search for a missing hat. The actors are invited to play it similarly cool, further forestalling auds’ emotional engagement, and look marvelous doing so.
The clear star of the show, however, is production designer Silvia Grabowski, who lends proceedings the appropriate level of mannered theatricality with starkly gilded interiors and naively painted, two-dimensional studio sets for all outdoor scenes — the latter ranging from a quirkily detailed racetrack to Impressionist-inspired gardens. (The costumes, by contrast, are lushly upholstered, enhancing the sense that the characters are playing dress-up in their own lives.) As an incidental snatch of Verdi permeates the soundtrack in its closing stages, the penny drops at last: Putting aside its literary origins, Botelho has reconceived “The Maias” as an opera minus the arias, its grandest expressions of feeling left teasingly unsung.