(English, German and Portuguese dialogue)
The title of Wim Wenders'”Lisbon Story” is 50% misleading. The crooked old lanes, extraordinary colors and curious sounds of the Portuguese capital are caressed and cajoled in almost every frame, but any story barely gets a look-in. Instead, Wenders spins out a prosaic meditation on the nature of cinema (with a self-referential nod to its centennial) that enervates the uncharacteristically light touch elsewhere. The film’s commercial prospects look modest, beyond a core of arthouse admirers.
Originally commissioned to make a docu to celebrate Lisbon’s turn as European culture capital in 1994, Wenders decided soon after hitting town to transform the project into a narrative feature, improvising a script during shooting. Many of the director’s customary obsessions are brought into play, along with characters resuscitated from previous films.
Center screen is Phillip Winter (Rudiger Vogler), last seen in “Until the End of the World” and “Faraway, So Close!” This time, he’s a German sound recordist summoned to Lisbon by a postcard from disillusioned director friend Friedrich Monroe (Patrick Bauchau). The latter character name is familiar from Wenders’ 1982 pic “The State of Things,” another Portuguese-set probe into the filmmaking process.
Winter’s journey by car across a Europe without frontiers sets a tone of impending discovery. When he arrives in Lisbon, Monroe has vanished, leaving behind silent footage shot on an old hand-cranked camera. Not having much else to do, Winter begins exploring the city, recording sounds to go with the monochromatic images.
He kills time by entertaining a bunch of local urchins — whom he christens “vidiots” because they’re obsessed with recording everything they see on video cameras — and by mooning over Teresa (Teresa Salgueiro). She sings with Madredeus, the band composing the soundtrack music for Monroe’s documentary.
Amassing moods and impressions of the city and touching on individual stories without really developing them, the film gets by to a certain extent on its ambling charms, its seductively melancholy music track and Vogler’s easygoing presence and understated humor.
Wenders stirs in frequent evocations of Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa and homages to filmmakers he admires. Pic opens and closes with a salute to Federico Fellini, and includes a monologue by veteran auteur Manoel de Oliveira on God, man, the universe and the importance of memory, followed by an impromptu Charlie Chaplin impersonation.
But the return of the Monroe character lands like a dead weight. Having abandoned the docu and his belief in the value of the filmed image, Winter launches into a pedestrian diatribe about film no longer being used for telling and showing, only for selling. He explains that his initial intent was to use a hand-cranked, silent camera (like Buster Keaton in “The Cameraman”), making believe the entire 100-year history of cinema had never happened.
Observing that the camera is like a gun, draining life out of the city, he decides the only uncontaminated images are those that remain unseen. To this end , he straps a video camera to his back and blindly tapes a vision of the city to be archived for future generations.
Wenders’ tone throughout all this leaden theorizing is clearly tongue-in-cheek, revoking his death sentence to cinema and his self-important prophesies about the future role of video by having Winter reopen Monroe’s eyes to the magic of film. But that doesn’t make the banal onslaught any more digestible.
What does lighten the long stretches of borderline inertia and the late-reel bursts of plodding pontification is Lisa Rinzler’s razor-sharp, handsome lensing of the splendid location. Editing by Peter Przygodda and Anne Schnee makes much of the various film textures used, frequently splicing in vid material and Monroe’s faux-vintage footage.