Every year we see several films come out with each having their own unique approach in telling their story. Some may follow the conventional method, some may adopt a revolutionary technique that we hadn’t seen before and some may use a longer runtime or split their story into several parts to make it more digestible for the viewer. Raoul Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon was originally intended to be a film that was to be told through a series of 8 films, each of one hour duration. This plan was scrapped and the decision was made to turn into a single film of a much shorter length: approximately 4 hrs and 26 mins. Reviewing such a lengthy film is an arduous task so I’ll try to keep it as short as possible.
With a dense and rich storytelling that is only seen in some of the most well-known of literary works, the film is a vast and sprawling epic that spans several generations and continents. It possesses an ambitious scope and efficiency that hasn’t been seen since the films of David Lean. It tracks the life of several characters, each with their own individual tales to tell, and each holding a particular significance with respect to the other. The film begins with the story an orphaned boy named João, who is under the care of a kind priest named Father Dinis at his school. The boy is eager to know about his parentage. This slowly takes us to the story of his father and mother, the two star-crossed lovers whose romance is short-lived. We also come to learn a great deal about the enigmatic Father Dinis (played by a terrific actor called Adriano Luz), who may have a secret and interesting past of his own.
Father Dinis has a big hand in shaping some of the events that take place in these other characters’ lives and at times he reminds me of a more trustworthy version of Lord Baelish from Game of Thrones. Now that I’ve brought it up, I have to say that the film almost resembles the tv series but without the gratuitous sex and ultra-violence. The film also feels Dickensian at times, as there is one particular character called Alberto de Magalhães – one of the most interesting and charismatic characters in the film apart from Father Dinis – who looks as if he came straight out of a Dickens novel. The other major characters include a Countess, an old monk, a thug-turned-noble man and son. And Ruiz has assembled some of the most sophisticated actors to play them. The transition from one story to another is seamless and sometimes they run concurrently, with their significance and parallels being slowly revealed to us the film progresses.
The film feels like reading one of those great novels because it was indeed based on a novel of the same name by the Portuguese author Camilo Castelo Branco. Now, if you are already familiar with the life of Branco, you’ll be able to see a slight resemblance in the story of the author and that of one of the characters. Usually films of a long duration tend to bore many viewers, especially if the film is a period piece. But I assure you that Mysteries of Lisbon is one of those films. Ruiz directs the film with a light touch and succeeds in maintaining the pace throughout. The elegant composition and fluid camera work is reminiscent of the films of Max Ophuls and also those of Stanley Kubrick. It would be a little hard to not look at the film and constantly think of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. The film’s runtime may prove challenging for some but patient viewers will be rewarded with a very satisfying and enriching experience.