By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com
Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: New. Mysteries of Lisbon
The film is Ruiz and co-writer Carlos Saboga’s and producer Paulo Branco’s adaptation of the book by Castelo Branco, a writer of enormous invention, high narrative skill and sometimes utter shamelessness, who lived from 1825 to 1890 (a life sometimes as mad, outrageous and full of seeming potboiler clichés as his novels). He wrote may novels and some of them have been adapted as films, with high fidelity and physical beauty, by producer Branco and his other great director, Manoel de Oliveira (Ill-Fated Love). Castelo Branco’s subject was usually mad love among the rich — fertile ground for any novel or film — and his characters fall in love and suffer and plunge into nightmare like Heathcliff and Cathy in “Wuthering Heights,” or Scottie and Madeleine/Judy in Vertigo.
De Oliveira is the extraordinarily durable filmmaker, whose first credit (as an acting extra) was in 1928, I the Silent Era. He started slowly (because of Portugal‘s fascist governments), directed Ill-Fated Love in 1969, at a comparatively young (for him) 61, became a festival darling and saw his career accelerate when he passed 70, and today, at 103, is still managing one or two films a year. Paulo Branco has produced (according to the latest imdb count), 244 films, several of them from Castelo Branco novels.
Raoul Ruiz, the Chilean-French experimentalist, born “Raul Ruiz,” has directed over a hundred films (like his American namesake Raoul Walsh) and his more admired film is Time Regained, his 1999 adaptation of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Ruiz was durable too, though he died last year at 70, and he was able to finish this film — a six hour TV miniseries, released in a two part four hour version for theatres — and one other, before that death (from liver cancer) took him.
Fiction can be stranger, and more beautiful, than life, and that’s especially so, it seems, if the source is a Castelo Branco novel or a Raoul Ruiz film. Ruiz was a filmmaker of the ‘60s who managed to be an artist and an experimentalist all his life and this is one of his most intense and memorable films — even if it’s so long and complicated, that it‘s hard to remember it all. If you want a semi-synopsis of Mysteries of Lisbon, I’ll give it to you, or at least the beginning of one. You’ll probably lose your way more than once in the narrative thickets of the film anyway, even though it’s staged and shot in slow languorous rhythms and long takes that should ordiarily be easy to follow or decipher. But often nothing too easy is worth keeping — which is one of the other things a great novel teaches us.
So: A young boy at a church boarding school named Joao or Pedro (played by Joao Arrais), whose patrimony is uncertain, is bullied by his classmates and befriended by a seemingly all-knowing priest named Padre Diniz (Adriano Luz), who introduces Pedro to his sad, abused mother, Angelina, the Countess of Santa Barbara (Maria Joao Bastos), and tells the boy his own back-story. In the past, Pedro’s real father was killed and the Countess virtually imprisoned by her insanely jealous husband, The Count of Santa Barbara (Albano Jeronimo). That knowledge may give the boy a mixed sense of persecution and entitlement and it sends him off on a journey that stretches through war and peace, romance and tragedy, among dozens of lovers, nobles, thieves, victims and assassins, from Lisbon to Spain, France, Italy and elsewhere. Soon Pedro discovers that the world is full of guilty secrets: aristocrats who are crazy, lovers who are mad, pirates who become noblemen, and of course lots of perverse, doomed, ill-fated love, the kind Castelo Branco likes. All the while, a puppet show mimics “reality.” That’s enough synopsis. The movie is full of plot, and part of the fun of watching it — and there is immense fun in Mysteries of Lisbon — is following the thread through the labyrinth and meeting each new surprise with fresh mind and eyes. The movie has been beautifully shot by cinematographer Andre Szankowski, gorgeously art directed by Isabel Branco, and hypnotically well directed by Ruiz, who may have been dying when he made it, but who still breathes that stylized life into every frame he gives us — even as he always makes us aware of artifice, theatre, dreams, ad the pages of the novel turning.
Mysteries of Lisbon can be watched and enjoyed again, just as a great novels can always be read and reread, and increasingly enjoyed. It’s a TV miniseries of course, but that‘s the best way, with the fullest time, to translate a novel to film, whether it’s Brideshead Revisited or Pride and Prejudice or Ill-Fated Love.
As I watched Ruiz’s movie, I kept remembering things past: how joyous and almost intoxicating it was to stand in a new library, whether it was the one in the little village of Williams Bay in Wisconsin that I knew as a boy, or later, the most beautiful library I ever saw: Marta and Lion Feuchtwanger’s in Los Angeles, two stunning, bookcase-lined rooms loaded floor to ceiling with such treasures as a Gutenberg Bible, autographed books from Wolfgang Mozart to the Feuchtwangers’ friends, literary lions of the 20th century like Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig, and even an original copy of the newspaper in which Emile Zola bravely published his “J’Accuse.”
I kept imagining seeing and reading all those books up on all those shelves. Of walking over and pulling them one by one down from their places. “Don Quixote.” Shakespeare’s Plays. “The Brothers Karamazov.” “Bleak House.” “The Tale of Genji.” “Moby Dick.” “Lost Illusions.” Each book had a little world inside it glowing like a candle, and a dramatis personae, and so does the film Mysteries of Lisbon. The authors will die. Our lives will end. But the stories live on — which is one of the last things a great novel, or a great movie, teaches us.