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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: New. Mysteries of Lisbon

 
 
MYSTERIES OF LISBON (Four Stars) 
Portugal: Raoul Ruiz, 2010-11 (Music Box Films)
Take the book down from the shelf. Open the pages. Interesting title. “‘Mysteries of Lisbon”… 
 
Raoul Ruiz’s mesmerizing movie Mysteries of Lisbon, which was adapted from Camilo Castelo Branco’s 19th century novel about psychological/romantic torment in the Portuguese upper classes, gives us a lot of the dramatic, verbally sensuous pleasure of reading a book like Castelo Branco’s: a big triple decker tale full of character and incident, scandal and romance.
 There’s a special delight in that kind of reading experience, and the movie captures it: the delight of holding in your hands a great thick, complex novel — a book like “War and Peace” or “David Copperfield” or “Remembrance of Things Past” or even “Gone With the Wind” — and to feel as you open it that you and the author are embarking together on a voyage to another world — as the words on the pages beneath your fingers come alive, and as they spread out their scenes and their people and their bounties of thought, action, speech and physical description, as the characters live and breathe and quarrel and make love and die — as that invented world keeps passing before us like a banquet or a dream, or, to recall the words of novelist/memoirist Ernest Hemingway, like a movable feast.
 Reading such a book by such an author is one of life’s great unguilty pleasures, and one that sadly we may be having less and less these days, as the bookstores close, as the computers usurp their place, as Kindles rise, and as life inevitably changes — which is the first important fact that a great or good novel teaches us .
 
So, Ruiz’s film of Castelo Branco’s “Mysteries of Lisbon” is something to celebrate, another joy we can and should share: sumptuously complex, madly romantic, gorgeously cinematic, one of my favorite films of the year. Not everyone will like it, but so what? I loved it, as a number of other critics seem to, and they’re right I think, and the wiseacres who mock it, as a Euro-snooze or some plodding literary elephant of a show, are wrong.
 
 
Mysteries of Lisbon, which sounds (perhaps deliberately) like a kindred spirit to Eugene Sue‘s 19th century super-potboiler “Mysteries of Paris” (which I have in my library but know by now, that I will ever read, unless somebody else adapts it for a film), is a movie not so much about life, but about how novels compress and capture life, how they transmute and transport the world around us, turning it into something more beautiful and more magnificently poetic and strange, something old as The Odyssey, and new as the latest experimental play or video.
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 We are conscious in every second of Ruiz’s splendidly appointed, dramatically rich, oddly stylized film that we are watching a big novel visualized and dramatized, recounted and recited by prettily-costumed actors and caught by a gracefully moving camera. That recognition instills a big part of our double-layered pleasure.

 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.

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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.

 

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Actually, by Hollywood standards, you’re right, I said. That is unambitious.

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~ Swanberg On Swanberg By Borelli

“In retrospect, nothing of that kind surprised me about Philip, because his intuition was luminous from the instant you met him. So was his intelligence. A lot of actors act intelligent, but Philip was the real thing: a shining, artistic polymath with an intelligence that came at you like a pair of headlights and enveloped you from the moment he grabbed your hand, put a huge arm round your neck and shoved a cheek against yours; or if the mood took him, hugged you to him like a big, pudgy schoolboy, then stood and beamed at you while he took stock of the effect.”
John le Carré on Philip Seymour Hoffman