2010s, Chilean cinema, Drama, Historical

No (2012)

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Director: Pablo Larraín

By Roderick Heath

Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín made a name for himself a few years ago with the outré mission statement that was Tony Manero (2008), a vicious black comedy detailing life on the lowest level of Chilean society under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Larraín followed it up with the similarly dark Post Mortem (2010), and now concludes what could be called a loose trilogy of films about the most infamous chapter in his country’s existence with a study of the military dictator’s unexpected, purely politically enforced downfall. Larraín has changed tack from the punkish provocations of his debut (No is actually an adaptation by Pedro Peirano of a play by Antonio Skármeta), but his method and viewpoint in tackling Pinochet’s unseating retains a fascination for the unpredictable power of media imaging to fuel the fantasies of “ordinary” people and the perverse influence of those fantasies on reality. Whereas in Tony Manero Larraín investigated the culturally deadening nature of fascism through a degraded psychopath obsessed with disco glam, here his hero is a real person, albeit one who corrals fascinating contradictions: René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) has his cred in his name, as the son of exiled personage of the Allende years. René himself spent years in exile, too, schooled in the contemporary, first-world arts of advertising and media messaging, and has returned to his native country to work for the advertising agency run by Lucho Guzmán (Alfredo Castro), engaged in what is commonly dismissed as the shallowest and most brain-deadening, thought-clogging of arts.
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René carries with him the sensibility of a different country’s youth culture, riding around on a skateboard, as if Michael J. Fox’s Back to the Future (1985) hero has been dumped in the middle of a Costa-Gavras film, and conversing easily in an argot of branding, image-consciousness, and rapid-edit razzle-dazzle. Yet he also possesses the faintly battered, haunted spirit, the melancholy eyes and taciturn frustration that infuse almost everyone about him, the awareness of an oppressive reality enforced by everyday detail and intransigent memory. René is introduced giving a spiel to executives for the soft drink Free Cola that makes it sound like the commercial they’re about to see is some great seismic shift in the zeitgeist, when it’s actually a compendium of meaningless pop images built around that most essential embodiment of western licence and enthusiasm, the rock band, including, most irritatingly to one of the execs, a mime. But René is right, to a certain extent: his ad does portend the arrival of consumer culture in Chile, something the regime claims to have fostered with its economic competence and political stability, but which will turn on its master by demanding choice and brighter colours. As international pressure mounts on Pinochet, his regime announces a referendum for the public to decide whether or not it wants the General to continue his personal rule for several more years. Most opponents assume the election will be rigged or least made impossible to win, and indeed, the regime tries to ensure the No campaigners have as much difficulty getting their message out as humanly possible in spite of the legalisation of political advertising.
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René is approached by José Tomás Urrutia (Luis Gnecco), a leading activist and opposition spokesman who knew René’s father, to give the first ads and strategies of the No campaign. These prove to be ads formed around that mantra of activism, “raising awareness,” trying to draw attention to the appalling number of dead, missing, and tortured under Pinochet’s regime, complete with tactics like ominous music and mournful mothers clutching photos of their dead or vanished sons. René initially turns down Urrutia’s request to supervise the campaign because of the lack of pay, tight deadline, irritation with the resigned attitude of the campaigners and their negative messaging that is likely to be suppressed quickly, and his own general ignorance of political specifics. But the niggling truth of his past and his percolating social conscience are soon given new solidity by his boss Guzmán’s pro-regime browbeating and veiled threats, and the sight of his ex, Verónica Carvajal (Antonia Zegers), being arrested along with coworkers in a raid by government goons. He works up what is at first a mere variation on his standard cola ads, and shows a rough cut assembled from other ads to give an idea of what he intends. Screening it to a collective of No campaign honchos, one stands up and upbraids René for belittling and hiding his and others’ pain and the horror that the regime has committed, barking epithets before stomping out. But others see what René is getting at, or at least sense that he knows what he’s talking about, and they commission him to make the all-important ads that will be squeezed into the allotted 15 minutes for the No program. René puts together a team from the agency who hold meetings and plan strategy under Guzmán’s nose, and shoot an ad to kick off the three-week campaign.
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Larraín’s major stylistic choice, and coup, was to shoot No on a vintage ’80s video camera recovered from a rubbish dump, to keep the film’s mise-en-scène consistent with the news and television footage, including the real advertisements that doubtlessly burned themselves into the memories of Chileans who saw them. René skateboards through streets, or he and his No fellows discuss strategy on the beach, bathed in the blazing light and colour bleed familiar to anyone who worked with such cameras, this world reenvisioned as an artefact of its own technology. Such an approach, retrofitting the dramatic recreations of the movie to the period footage, is a reverse to more usual practice, though it does harken back to older films like The Longest Day (1962), which deliberately eschewed shooting in colour to interpolate documentary war footage. Larraín’s insistence on building his film around the original ads confirms his demand for specificity, not only because of the familiarity as mentioned above, but also because Larraín’s subject is not just the creation of iconic media moment, but that moment itself, its specific textures that encode their messages beyond the overt and immediate.
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René forges ahead with his plan despite the uncertainty of other No campaigners, including his own aide, Fernando Arancibia (Néstor Cantillana), who wants to promote agitation. The process of shooting his centrepiece ad is depicted as a collage of seemingly random bits of business, which coalesce into a whole that’s equally random, except in its suggestion of an upcoming, entirely joyous event. René’s team even supplies the compulsory campaign anthem, except it’s not really an anthem, as René insists, but a jingle: plain and simple, catchy and easy to remember. The Yes campaign’s showpiece ads are, by contrast, terrifying in their staid, fatuous displays: glossy-faced blue-bloods singing operatic, patriotic songs and attempts to sell Pinochet as a hard-working manager in suits, not a uniform.
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The nightly 15-minute slot for the No side has been chosen in the hope that “everyone will be sleeping,” as a bemusedly hopeful government minister, Fernández (Jaime Vadell), says to Guzmán. As an emblem for the campaign, René chooses from his designers’ options a rainbow, to suggest the accord between many political factions, which bemuses Fernández entirely: “Isn’t that for faggots?” The assumption that the opposition is a collective of communists and homosexuals is so endemic for the regime that its members literally can’t conceive of any other alternatives, a symptom of a sclerotic and self-involved administration. Larraín offers scenes of the regime’s senior bureaucrats and military overlords discussing their own strategies, believing they have all the aces by pushing their economic achievements. But René and team identify two groups with apparently completely divergent interests likely to abstain from voting: the nation’s youth, who despise the regime, and its elderly, who are frightened of change but even more frightened of the endemic poverty in the country. The team targets them specifically with different campaign strategies.
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Larraín and Bernal adroitly chart the divide between René’s yuppie success story, working for a firm that’s almost a jewel in the regime’s crown for creating and sustaining the trappings of a modern economy, and his identity as a child of his time and place. The son of exiles, René is also the divorced single father of Simón (Pascal Montero), with an activist ex-wife who has a strong remnant affection for him, but holds him in not so subtle contempt for his affluent, apolitical security and shallow, disengaged occupation.  “It’s a copy of a copy of a copy,” she drones amusedly as she considers his showpiece ad, a line he later repeats in a rant when Guzmán tries to imitate it. An air of exhausted fatalism has long since drowned Veronica’s romanticism of being young, bright, and full of zeal. René still has his zest, but he shares her weighted melancholy. René wants to reconnect with Veronica, but is stymied by her cynical, bleary distance, accentuated when she’s abused in custody and released with black eyes; later, René disappointedly finds she’s shacking up with a new guy. Meanwhile, his home’s security is violated as Fernández, lobbied by Guzmán to take action against his wayward employees, sends out his goons: they enter René’s house in the night and paint vicious slogans on his windows.
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There’s a certain Spielbergian flavour to the way the narrative boils down to a father’s desire to protect his son and reunite his family, but also win something on their behalf in the context of a broad social drama, both participant and prisoner of upheaval and grand drama. However, in method and tone, Larraín aims closer to the likes of Haskell Wexler’s seminal docudrama Medium Cool (1969), especially in the film’s later stages, as news footage and staged scenes combine to recreate the violence unleashed on the No campaigners on the day of the plebiscite. Larraín doesn’t entirely succeed in meshing his various tones: the deadpan earnestness of René’s private life doesn’t feel as vital or urgent, and certainly not as gripping in its withering humour, as the rest of the film, nor does Larraín have the emotional fulsomeness of Spielberg or the livewire tone of Wexler or Godard. It would be easy to describe No as a sort of sarcastic triumphalist tale where retro commercial kitsch helps bring down a powerful evil, much like the cheap exploitation of that theme in Ben Affleck’s smooth and smarmy Argo (2012), where Hollywood bluster helps leaven a small good in the midst of geopolitical crisis.
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Larraín is much slyer in his wit, more exacting in his sense of milieu, and more cogently ironic in his investigation of the uneasy discourse between popular media imagery and politics than Affleck would be if he lived to be a million. Larraín is hip to the faint ring of sarcasm in the original campaign, its playful, yet passive-aggressive refusal to treat the toppling of murderous dictators as a grim business, or buy into the Yes side’s game of political name-calling and fear-mongering. René and Guzmán argue incessantly and bitchily as they’re drawn into direct opposition, but still keep up their pretences in their daily labours, shooting ads for kitchenware and overseeing a marketing campaign for a popular soap opera, “Hair Salon Love.” René orchestrates a publicity stunt designed to infiltrate the evening news in which the soap’s male star lands by helicopter on a skyscraper roof, greeted by the show’s bevy of female beauties. This aside seems at first like a device to highlight the silliness of René and Guzmán’s profession at its lowest, but as the film circles back to this vignette in the stinging coda, the soap’s panoply of femmes being romanced by a debonair suitor mockingly reflects the new political paradigm of nascent democracy, a series of artfully constructed seductions, where the soap star’s silver-haired Latin charm turns the paternalist patronage of Pinochet’s regime into a pop culture canard, a grinning, aged lothario trying to chat up an assortment of affluent and picky, yet superficially flirtatious doñas.
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Larraín builds anticipation and tension in leading up to the No campaign’s kick-off, sparking desire to see how René’s seemingly silly and incoherent assemblage of ideas will come together. The particular genius of Larraín’s employment of the original ads comes out in the way they’re linked in essayistic clarity. The war of messages is allowed to play out so the movie audience can absorb them as artefacts that, as Marshall McLuhan asserted, prove how much their encapsulation of the medium is itself the message. René’s ads are occasionally corny and provoke howls of recognition for the dated branding style, and yet their technical competence, the slickness and professional intelligence behind them, shine through, as well as the genuineness of their enthusiasm and the openness of their messaging. Just as Larraín used the siren call and fetishization of American pop-culture imagery in Tony Manero to reflect the cultural debasement of life in a dictatorship, here he directly counterpoints the flashiness of René’s product with the increasing desperation, derivativeness, and sloppiness of the regime’s ripostes. In René’s showpiece ad, the signature rainbow flag is passed on by horse riders like an Olympic torch, picnicking families celebrate peace and freedom by consuming culturally specious baguettes because they’re more photogenic, randomly excited dancers appear like they’ve dropped in from Footloose (1984), and those bloody mimes sneak in for another go around, presumably because René saw them in a David Bowie video or something. But all accumulate into a memorable panoply of images that spell “liberation” as insistently as the name of Free Cola flashes on the screen in the earlier ad without needing the literal words.
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René’s plan, no matter his motives and lacks in conceiving it, works brilliantly: by removing content from his ads and replacing it with ephemeral promise and good humour, he leaves the regime’s advertising looking, ironically, all the more hollow for trying to infer villainy behind the No side’s deliberately fostered party atmosphere, which takes its cues from René’s approach and soon infuses their street rallies in displays of playful positivity. Guzmán looks increasingly like an asshole—and the regime with him—as he tries to break the spell of René’s ads, but only seems to make them all the more alluring in their class and pep. In an ad that makes the infamous “Daisy” spot for Lyndon Johnson look subtle, the regime offers an ad with a steamroller threatening a toddler, inferring disaster, whilst another ad tries incompetently to satirise the upbeat tone of the No ads by depicting terrorists behind the scenes preparing anarchy and terror. But perhaps the most telling comparison comes through one of René’s joke-based ads, depicting a man and woman in bed, the woman resisting the man’s implorations with murmured “nos” until the man finally gives in and cries, “Alright then, No!” It’s a little gem of advertiser’s art, combining an exceedingly simple joke with an impudent, Yippielike tone, the basic advertising truism that sex sells, perfect and succinct on-brand messaging, and also deeper echoes to the Lysistrata myth, a play on the anxiety of discord in the nation played as bedroom agony. Guzman tries to counter it with a version where it’s the woman who finally says “Yes,” and a voiceover prods the audience as to which ending they like better. The lack of imagination, humour, originality, the crass appeal to machismo, the lack of inner sense or autonomy in the regime’s sensibility, all are laid bare cruelly. “This will be remembered as the campaign where the bosses worked for the regime and the workers for the opposition!” René warns Guzmán, and the results become all too amusingly obvious.
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But the harsh reality momentarily held in check by the war of gags and memes isn’t elided, as the No rally on voting day is attacked by police and dispersed with flagrant violence. Even the carnival atmosphere René and others have strived to create is not sufficient to ward off the vindictive brutality of a self-righteous, threatened junta. Veronica is beaten again and arrested by police, and Guzmán proves his essential loyalty to René in spite of all – and perhaps tries to protect his ass from reprisals if and when Pinochet falls – by using his regime friends to get her released. René now switches from orchestrator to bewildered bystander, a man who’s helped unleash forces, truths, and passions beyond what he’s allowed himself to countenance, as even his defanged version of opposition is ripe for pummelling. But the winds of change slowly make themselves apparent as the No campaign scores a crushing victory, at first denied by the state-run announcements but finally admitted as it becomes clear Pinochet’s military cabal won’t resist the tide of opinion, one that’s overcome all obstacles.
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René drifts in mute confusion as the moment of victory comes, suddenly not one of the animators but one of the paradoxically liberated and lost beneficiaries. Where Guzmán and other regime allies had promised punishment once the vote was stitched up, instead Guzmán introduces René with smug confidence to clients as the successful designer of the No campaign, before unveiling the company’s latest achievement, the soap opera’s news spot. Larraín closes on René’s uncomfortable expression after he offers a repeat of his opening folderol, a sharp and mordant punchline that reminds us that all great causes, once concluded, leave us stranded in the banality of the everyday and the mercenary. For René, that’s even truer, facing a return to life pretending that selling cola is as important an endeavour as changing regimes.

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2010s, Chilean cinema, Drama, Historical, Portuguese cinema

Mysteries of Lisbon (2010)

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Mistérios de Lisboa

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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