There’s a lot of story to get through in Raúl Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon—257 minutes of it, to be exact—but you could spend the entire 4 1/4 hours (plus intermission) simply ogling those shots. An adaptation of an 1854 tome by prolific author Camilo Castelo Branco, and boasting dozens of characters, storylines and (despite the title) locales, Lisbon could be described as The Saragossa Manuscript as helmed by the Stanley Kubrick of Barry Lyndon.
But whereas Kubrick presented the past in a series of austere tableaux, Ruiz is restless and playful. Sometimes his camera moves, either slowly one way or back and forth. Other times it will plop down, still, for epic static shots. Ruiz usually keeps his distance—there’s one (1) close-up in the many hours—but sometimes he goes even farther back; a couple scenes play out with the camera peering through doors, while one duel takes place while we gaze through the windows of a carriage. No costume drama has been this aesthetically lively since Bertrand Tavernier’s recent Princess of Montpensier, although Lisbon is obviously more leisurely.
Describing the shots, each a musty beaut filmed in HD, is far easier than summarizing the many plot threads. The technical protagonist, as we will eventually know him, is Pedro de Silva (João Luis Arrais as a teen, Afonso Pimentel as an adult), an orphan who spends the first half discovering, through others, the truth about his folks.
From that basic premise spurts a geyser of calmly observed melodrama, starring cruel women, scarred pirates and more than one person who, destroyed by the vagaries of 19th century life, retreat to a life in a monastery or convent.
Ruiz, a Chilean-born filmmaker who died last month after making more than 100 films, navigates through the multitude plots with a cool elegance, making what can be, storywise, a bit boilerplate profound. With every new storyline, his movie opens up, its worldview becoming more deeper. By the end, the effect is positively cosmic. In some ways this search for lost time is a better Proust film than Ruiz’s actual Proust film, Time Regained (2000), the last film of his to get released in Philadelphia. Watching Lisbon is the equivalent of an afternoon lost in an austere museum; emerging from this labyrinth into the real world, one feels despondent that it’s over but enriched from the experience.