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MOVIE REVIEW: Mysteries of Lisbon

  • Mysteries of Lisbon
  • Mysteries of Lisbon
  • Mysteries of Lisbon
  • Mysteries of Lisbon
  • Mysteries of Lisbon
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Raúl Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon, unequivocally the most important film of 2011, begins with a public rumor and ends with a personal memory. The four glorious hours in between, what I can only describe as a simmering stew of intrigue, revenge and romance, intricately maps the serpentine narrative canals connecting these two reference points. Told in a fluid, almost elastic style, Mysteries of Lisbon effortlessly overlaps seemingly diverging stories and experiences to create a majestic timeline of tragedy, lust, and comeuppance, where each piece is integral to the overall puzzle.

Characters share long, subtext-heavy interludes, verbal standoffs of epic proportions that jettison them into the expanding cinematic world beyond the frame. Fittingly, Ruiz’s nimble camera glides through hallways, rooms, and corridors like a boomerang slowed to an inquisitive crawl, twirling forward then backtracking to find new information, new emotions. Each wonderfully textured image is a still photograph spun into motion by fate.

Set in 19th century Portugal among the upper echelons of the social elite, Mysteries of Lisbon opens with the story of Joao (Joao Baptista), a young orphan yearning to understand his true identity and past history. From here, the film gracefully and deceptively expands to include multiple characters, flashbacks, and tangents where every human emotion under the sun (sometimes under the moon), becomes a cinematic centerpiece.

Father Dinis (Adriano Luz), Joao’s mentor and protector, appears in each narrative subsection, observing the flurry of conflicts and romances with a keen eye for detail. His shape-shifting identity and steadfast wisdom becomes Ruiz’s thematic center, a human bridge that allows Joao and many others to contemplate their origin stories in complex ways. Considering his omniscience, it isn’t surprising Dinis becomes a sort of mystical figure throughout Mysteries of Lisbon, a translator of life experience for both the viewer and Joao.

From here, it would be naïve and imprudent to describe Mysteries of Lisbon’s story in full, but the ways in which Ruiz effortlessly conducts his symphony of human emotion is never short of extraordinary. Let this merely be a first bite for the ten-course meal to follow.

In terms of setting, large salons, expansive courtyards, and debonair dinner parties make up the physical geography of Lisbon. Each ornate arena perceives a surface level sheen, a misleading façade that only partially contains the ghosts haunting each space. Since Ruiz lingers for long amounts of time in every environment, the character’s words become an intrinsic part of the landscape, almost stiflingly so. While recollecting a painful memory inside a church, one character collapses, telling Father Dinis, “it is just dizziness from all the emotion.” As with this pivotal instance, when secrets and lies are unleashed in Mysteries of Lisbon, physical spaces become echo chambers endlessly ricocheting traumatic memories off the walls. 

Time is both a weapon and a shield in Mysteries of Lisbon, sometimes a purveyor of doom, and sometimes a surveyor of hope. This natural pragmatism toward the ways contrasting ideologies, social conventions and hierarchies feed off each other is Ruiz’s main concern. The final moments of the film find a beggar telling the now grown Joao an especially pertinent bit of wisdom: “What to us, are the things of life, are the enormous tragedies to the nobility.” But Mysteries of Lisbon doesn’t just skewer the arrogance and entitlement of the privileged; it connects wealth and poverty as complex human experiences separated by the smallest twist of fate, the most minute detail. Both are subject to tragedy and redemption in equal measure.

Ruiz’s greatest character, an assassin named Knife Eater (Ricardo Pereira) who later evolves into a much more complicated beast, best personifies this transcendent and flexible view of human nature. In the end, Mysteries of Lisbon is not a film of finite memories, scars, or relationships, but remembered (and misremembered) shifts in consciousness, defining moments crystallized through the hazy lens of time.

One side note to consider: the recent death of director Raúl Ruiz in August 2011 makes the San Diego release of Mysteries of Lisbon even timelier. Though Ruiz supposedly completed four more films, I urge you to experience Mysteries of Lisbon for yourself the way it was meant to be seen; on the big screen. It’s the master director’s parting cinematic treasure.

Mysteries of Lisbon begins a limited one-week run at Landmark Kensington Cinema Friday September 23, 2011.

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  • Rating: 3 of 5