Director: Raúl Ruiz
By Roderick Heath
Raúl Ruiz’s recent death came as a shock to the system for cinema aficionados who admired that restless, protean stylist and dramatist, a filmmaker who never quite broke out of the box of niche affection in the English-speaking world. One comforting thing, however, was that he left us with one of the best films of the year. Mysteries of Lisbon was produced for television, but released this year worldwide in a cinema edit, and like Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1983) and Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971) it makes medium distinctions entirely disappear. Mysteries of Lisbon is as visually rich and pervasively controlled as the best of movie-making, even as a work based essentially in people speaking and relating events which unfold in the nerveless gaze of Ruiz’s camera.
Mysteries is based on a work by 19th century Portuguese writer Camilo Castelo Branco, a writer heavily influenced by Victor Hugo, and it’s a grand, sprawling tale full of classic Victorian narrative twists and lush, period romantic drama. And yet Ruiz articulates Branco’s tale with a poetically incisive vision, creating a psychological and imaginative epic depicting in a subtle, but steady fashion the depths of influence that go into creating an adult psyche, penetrating the haunted mind of its main protagonist, and the collapse from moral rot and hypocrisy of old world Portugal and the physical and interior processes creating a new one. In its immersive sensations, Mysteries calls to mind the best of Luchino Visconti, Max Ophüls, and the Kubrick of Barry Lyndon (1975) in the sustained intensity of mood, whilst the teeming layers of narrative gears working to elucidate the complex forces that create individuals blended with a layer of effervescent fantasy evokes, if more subtly, the wild storytelling riffs of Wojciech Has’ The Saragossa Manuscript (1964).
Describing Branco’s novel as “homonymous,” a title declares, “This story is not my child, or my godchild. It is not a work of fiction. It is a diary of suffering.” Mysteries of Lisbon initially centres around João (João Arrais), first glimpsed as a sad-eyed, black-haired young orphan in a school run by the strangely intense, but benevolent Father Dinis (Adriano Luz). The story commences in the 1820s, during the “Revolução Liberal” that ended much of Portugal’s colonial activity and British domination after the Napoleonic Wars. That theme of revolt and collapse flows through Mysteries of Lisbon like an underground river.
João is first seen through the eyes of an English lady who sketches his remarkable, melancholic face. João’s melancholy has definite causes: he is made sport of by other students for being parentless, with one accusing him of being a criminal’s child. When João becomes violently ill, he awakens in a delirium to find a number of people, including a mysterious and lovely woman, standing over his bed. When João recovers, Dinis takes him to see the woman, who appears at the window of a great house, before the belligerent lord of the manor chases them away. The truth, which João suspected, soon emerges: the woman was João’s mother, Countess Ângela de Lima (Maria João Bastos), who has been kept a virtual prisoner by her husband, the Count of Santa Bárbara (Albano Jerónimo) for all the years João spent growing up. Ângela is regarded as a victimised saint by most who know her, including Dinis, who soon begins revealing facets of his background and personality that seem completely at odds with his role as religious educator and taskmaster.
Mysteries of Lisbon begins to unfold with a roundelay of revelations and narrative layering familiar to anyone who has read Hugo or Dickens, and yet the manner in which Ruiz treats them sees them begin to blur into each other, stretching into the past across several generations in distinct yet curiously repetitious incidents, full of shape-shifting characters and dramas. A recurrent motif is having incidents enacted via the puppet theatre that young João retrieves from within the orphanage, as if he’s conjuring a vision of things to be, or just romancing an identity for himself. Ruiz’s way of telling a story through almost subliminal detail is apparent throughout Mysteries of Lisbon, though that can entrap the wary viewer. Branco’s novel was sourced in his own troubled childhood as an orphan and peripatetic, indecisive adult life before he finally found recourse in writing. João, the youthful hero, is initially virtually anonymous—just look at the cast members of the film to see how common the name is in Portugal—but eventually learns his real name and family background. But his identity is like a suit of borrowed clothes with a naggingly unpayable price tag.
In a more literal fashion, other characters in the tale change identities with their apparel. Dinis, revealed eventually to be a former Napoleonic soldier and revolutionary hiding out in the guise of a Catholic priest, has himself a similarly deep hole in his past to João’s, and has been a cunning master of self-reinvention. His intense empathy for João and Ângela seems, at first, to hint that he himself is João’s father; the real reason is because of his own familiarity with being alone in the world, and personal reasons for detesting cruelty to women and the lot of orphans.
The first mystery of the title is João’s parentage, which is slowly explained once Dinis is able to help Ângela flee from her husband’s house when he’s away trying to fight the revolutionaries. João is the lovechild of Ângela and a young suitor, Pedro da Silva (João Baptista), a man of noble birth but, sadly, no fortune, causing her father, the breezily contemptuous Marquês de Montezelos (Rui Morrison), to reject his marriage offer. Their aboveboard courting then turned clandestine and physical, until Da Silva was shot by the Marquês’ gypsy minion Come-Facas (“knife-eater”; played by Ricardo Pereira): Da Silva managed to find refuge with Dinis and tell his story before dying. When Ângela was spirited away to a remote country house to give birth, along with Come-Facas, who was instructed to kill the infant, Dinis followed her there in the guise of a gypsy. He bought Come-Facas off, allowing him to spirit João away and see to his upbringing. Ângela was then married off by her father, with supple smiling threats and pressure, to the uptight Count.
Upon hearing that his wife has finally fled him, the Count spreads rumours that she is Dinis’ lover, and Dinis promptly tracks him down to get him to recant, but finds the Count is dying, tended by his long-time lover and serving maid Eugénia (Joana de Verona). The Count, consumed by guilt and bemused by his own mad behaviour, which he finally puts down to realising that the Marques suckered him, begs Ângela for forgiveness from his deathbed. Meanwhile, Dinis encounters a face from the past in the form of Alberto de Magalhães, a strapping gentleman about town who publically mocks the Count’s version of his wife’s affairs: de Magalhães is actually Come-Facas, who used Dinis’ money to go to Brazil and started bankrolling piratical ventures, allowing him to return to Portugal rich, if not exactly a gentleman.
Ruiz’s approach to filmmaking here is almost like ambient music, so unobtrusive, and yet so fluidly mobile and attentive to shifting tones: I doubt if I’ll see a better-made movie this year. Ruiz’s camera slides about like the servants who are constantly glimpsed hovering, listening, undermining the affectations of privacy and discretion the mostly upper-class protagonists maintain, and virtuoso tracking and deep-focus shots that constantly keep his characters alive within painterly, yet realistic environs. There’s a quietly bravura scene early in the film describing the abuse and peculiarities in the Count’s house, the camera passing back and forth through walls and rooms as the action unfolds, and casually revealing the Countess’s loyal servant hiding in an alcove and listening. Later, there’s a scene that’s all the more strange and funny for the peculiar way Ruiz shoots it: Dinis, riding along a boulevard in his carriage, is stopped as, on the street, a society fop challenges de Magalhães to a duel for offending some female guests at a soiree. Dinis, seated in his conveyance, does not quite understand, as the audience does, what is going on, and yet Ruiz holds the camera fixed to “his” perspective as the fop tries to shoot de Magalhães after he refuses to duel: de Magalhães picks up and hurls him bodily against the side of the carriage, and is glimpsed in partly obscured fashion that renders the action all the more bewildering, and funny.
An often hilarious vein of dry humour and tragicomic farce peppers Mysteries of Lisbon, as when de Magalhães causes two society dames to literally faint with shock when he challenges their careless gossip about Ângela, a scene that has a Buñuel-esque flavour, and later when he abuses scurrying staff in his mansion whilst talking with Dinis, part of a play-act to maintain the appearance of consuming preoccupation. Later, Ângela, having become a nun, playfully teases Dinis about another nun whom he seems to be on fascinatingly intimate terms with, aware that their reasons for taking up lives of sedulous devotion are contradicted by remnant links to the emotional and sensual world; Dinis is using it as a hideout, even if he’s certainly still a spiritually yearning man. The erotic plays underneath all of the seemingly uptight, yet constantly semi-hysterical actions of the characters in spite of the period polish: everybody seems to be having sex, or, more precisely, to have once had sex, with everybody else in this world, and indeed it’s the only real fun that anybody belonging to the upper classes could have once marriage, a vessel for the exchange and continuity of property, is a done deal. Frei Baltazar da Encarnação (José Manuel Mendes) gently chastises Dinis for failing to indulge in the Lord’s blessing of good food and drink, but as Encarnação’s later narrative reveals, such indulgence is a stand-in for other appetites, one which is burnt out of Dinis. Vast emotional pain is the result, and yet nobody is all that repentant for grasping at their moments of pleasure and happiness.
There’s no moral absolutism in Mysteries of Lisbon, and it’s Ruiz’s understanding of how that can make drama more gripping, rather than less as so many lesser artists think, that really makes the film compelling. His feather-light narrative shifts nonetheless completely change the emotional meaning of what’s occurring. Such moments come in the Count’s repentant attitude, Ângela’s surprised reconsidering of Eugénia’s part in her family melodrama, and the final glimpse of the Marquês, who, in his old age, is left poverty-stricken and blind, completely alone in the world, and yet still possessing an undimmed pride and a complete contrition for all of his acts. It is this absence of bogeyman figures to react against that seems part of first Ângela’s and then, much later, João’s tragic aura, victims of and testifiers for human weakness. As such, Mysteries of Lisbon is a classic example of a grace-note film from an aging director, simultaneously subtly scathing and unsentimental, and yet also big-hearted and, in spite of a lack of large gestures, sublimely emotional.
Despite the drollery and sexcapades, the keynote is one of irreducible emotional longing tuned to the key of young João’s desire for a home and identity. But the moment he gains his “family”—mother Ângela, proxy patriarch Dinis, and a real name (Pedro da Silva after his father) — he promptly loses it again. He recognises that something in his mother shifted inalterably after the Count’s deathbed plea: her still-youthful quality was extinguished by the spectacle of her husband’s contrition and the moral weight of it. She subsequently retreated into a nunnery by the conclusion of the film’s first half, unable to support herself after having rejected the Count’s inheritance. Dinis, in the first movement of the second half, learns something about himself that also explains his intense interest in João’s and Ângela’s welfare and his general attentiveness to the unfairly exiled and abused. He himself was the son of an illicit aristocratic passion, as he finds that the priest, Frei Baltazar da Encarnação (José Manuel Mendes) who was giving the Count of Santa Bárbara his last rites is, in fact, his own father. Himself a former roué, Álvaro de Albuquerque (Carloto Cotta) seduced and fell deeply in love with the Countess de Vizo (Maria João Pinho), the wife of an acquaintance. They had run off to Italy together, but she died in childbirth: Álvaro handed young Dinis over to a friend, who then had to pass him on, and so on until Dinis finished up being raised by a French nobleman. That’s how he came to be fighting for the Napoleonic cause in Spain under the name of Sebastiao de Melo—the name under which he once entreated the Count of Santa Bárbara not to marry Ângela.
There has been no shortage of superheroes on movie screens this year, and yet it struck me while watching Mysteries of Lisbon that Dinis is a superhero, and by far the best of them. Unfailingly conscientious, weary and wary-looking, yet darkly charismatic, a master of disguise, and a kind of swashbuckling holy man, Dinis acts for much of the first half of Mysteries of Lisbon like an unstinting force for good. He fearlessly rights wrong once he builds up a head of steam, even as he sits on a deep well of brooding emotion, saddled with a past, aspects of which he’s proud yet can’t acknowledge, and others that torture him with guilt. He keeps a room in the orphanage where he sits and contemplates the past, his alternate identities and dark secrets just waiting for João to penetrate on one of his inquisitive ventures. All those passions, sexual and political, are for him and so many other characters in the film the provenance of the past, as happiness constantly becomes something that can only be remembered, with their living products like João and Elisa de Montfort (Clotilde Hesme) left troubled, even damaged. The doubling in Dinis’ life and young João’s is hardly coincidental, as the narrative moves into a final movement in which João, grown into a young poet and going by his proper name (played as an adult by José Afonso Pimentel), encounters Elisa, a woman with a resemblance to his mother and a fine line of near-crazed manipulation.
Elisa is the daughter of Dinis’ own tragic love, Blanche de Montfort (Léa Seydoux), who married Dinis’ comrade in arms Benoit (Julien Alluguette), but eventually took a lover, Lacroze (Melvil Poupaud). Lacroze was a man whom Benoit and Dinis saved from a firing squad during the war and introduced to her, and whom they later pretended was dead so that she would finally marry one of them. Benoit finally killed Blanche and tried to cover it up in a fire. In his bleakest and most telling instance of presenting a lingering, deep-focus frame, Ruiz shows Benoit, dressed in his old cavalier’s uniform, calmly reading whilst everyone else tries to douse the fire and Dinis carries out Blanche’s body; Benoit eventually goes wandering off idly to disappear in the smoke and distraction.
The offspring of that tragedy, Elisa, in her turn, proves something of a disturbed and vengeful mirror to Ângela’s capacity for suffering, acting like a hellhound on the trail of de Magalhães, who, under one of his other names, had an affair with her in Paris. With finesse she tries to disturb de Magalhães’ happy marriage to the Count’s former mistress, Eugénia. Eugénia hides under a table and demands that her husband keep out all threats to their security. Whilst Dinis recounts to Elise the story of her mother’s death, de Magalhães bursts in and almost strangles Elisa to death in front of the priest after she threatens to shoot him; Dinis’ invocation of their long-past bonhomie in other guises talks him out murder. Elisa later enlists João when he falls for her in France to return to Portgual and avenge her besmirched honour by challenging de Magalhães to a duel, having no idea of the part de Magalhães once played in saving João’s life. The scene seems set for some sort of ironic tragedy, as either man could kill someone to whom they owe their life in a fashion, but the narrative sidesteps the obvious. De Magalhães, after making it clear that he can easily kill João in a duel, gets him to call it off and explains the less romantic truth about what happened between him and Elise: she and he signed a contract that was really just a gambit to an erotic game, where he would pay her for sex. Forming a passion for him that he could not reciprocate, she developed a nasty habit of repeatedly convincing romantic young men, like João and even her own brother, to try to kill him.
Mysteries of Lisbon works on more levels than just the literal one of plot and character—it’s also a meditation on storytelling, in a subtle but irreducible fashion, and on circles of life that resemble yet do not exactly reproduce each other. Ruiz isn’t trying, like so many postmodern stunt merchants, to sunder the nature of narrative so much as to suggest that life itself as a complex interweaving of repeated events and constructed perspectives. Time folds back on itself at the end of Mysteries of Lisbon as João, who might be dying, and is certainly feeling the impact of having his shaky chivalry and sense of what his life means broken in pieces by Elise’s game-playing. As inheritor of all these stories and truths which leave him old before his time, he leaves the country and finishes up deathly ill in a hotel in a foreign land, dictating a memoir. The final tragedy—and it is a tragedy when all is said and done—is that João finally reaches a point where, just like the rest of the characters, he achieves maturity at the point of losing his illusions, retaining only a memory of perfection, the one moment in which all of life and hope seemed to lie before him: when he awoke from a similar sickbed to find his mother, still a stranger and yet somehow familiar to him, hovering over him. It would be an insult to leave off without mentioning the general excellence of the cast, especially Luz, Pereira, and Bastos.