In 19th-century Portugal, a bastard boy and a kindly priest are at the center of a plot that stretches backward and forward across decades, involving pirates, thieves, and slave-traders as well as society’s upper crust. Raúl Ruiz’s Mysteries Of Lisbon is based on a novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, and follows a tangled “Let me tell you my story” structure, which means that at any time, one of the narrators can hand off to someone else with a related anecdote. Characters recur from subplot to subplot, though they don’t always look the same, and it sometimes takes an hour or more for the film to reveal the reason for the variations. But since Mysteries Of Lisbon runs four and a half hours, there’s plenty of time for Ruiz and screenwriter Carlos Saboga to reveal how all these scattered hunks of narrative connect.
Mysteries Of Lisbon is an odd kind of epic: It’s digressive and even trifling at times, and though a large cast wanders through the frame, the individual scenes tend to be focused on just two or three people, having winding conversations about political intrigue and affairs of the heart. Ruiz and cinematographer André Szankowski construct each individual segment of Mysteries Of Lisbon like a film unto itself, using hazy natural light, split diopter shots, smeared lenses, forced angles, actors pulled on dolly-tracks, trompe l’oeils, puppetry… anything to make a scene visually pleasurable. (Their neatest recurring trick involves pivoting the camera to reveal a surprise character in the corner of a room.) It’s all an effort to match the floridity of Saboga’s adaptation of Branco’s book, in which fortunes switch hands, lovers hop beds, and even the trustworthiest souls have secret allegiances.
For all its visual invention and full-blooded melodrama, Mysteries Of Lisbon never tilts to full-on crazy. (If anything, it could use more borderline over-the-top moments like the one where a character’s connection to Napoleon’s army is revealed, as Jorge Arriagada’s score builds suspensefully.) At the start, a caption describes what we’re about to see as “a diary of suffering,” and sure enough, even as the plot gets passed along to ever-grander heroes, the misery of missed connections and ruined reputations endures. No wonder the priest urges the bastard early on to focus on scientific facts, not the esoterica of his parentage. For the truth of who they really are, the characters in Mysteries Of Lisbon rely on fantasies and rumors, which inevitably get distorted in the telling.