When in Lisbon, Judge Gordon Sullivan heads for the mystery section at the library.
"I chose to take refuge in the dramaturgy of dreams."—Raoul Ruiz
The novel has undergone a lot of changes in the last couple of centuries. Though genre fiction (in our case the current crop of thrillers) is still likely to be at the top of the bestsellers list, books have slimmed down quite a bit in the last hundred years or so. If you pick up a book these days, it's usually about one character going through one specific incident. Turn the clock back to the Victorian era, though, and you'll encounter massive volumes that take on a cast of characters numbering in the double or sometimes triple digits. Most viewers will be familiar with examples like the works of Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo, but they weren't alone in composing multi-stranded narratives. Portugal produced the prolific Camilo Castelo Branco (who wrote 260 books!), whose novel The Mysteries of Lisbon forms the basis for the Portuguese director Raoul Ruiz's final film. Though some viewers might be put off by the almost-five hour running time, those that persevere will enjoy a delightful cinematic fantasy.
Facts of the Case
Though Mysteries of Lisbon features a multi-stranded narrative of numerous characters, at the heart is the "mystery" of the orphan João (João Arrais) who is taken in by Father Dinis (Adriano Luz, The Fatalist). By exploring João's story with Father Dinis, we watch a whole chain of stories unravel.
Adaptations are almost always tricky things. Mysteries of Lisbon has age and obscurity going for it; it's highly unlikely that the average viewer is going to come to the film with any preconceived notions, so the film doesn't have to worry about disappointing fans. Going against it, however, is the fact that the book is large and contains a number of characters. Its epic sweep and large ensemble are perfect for a novel. Too often, though, cinematic adaptations end up sacrificing nuance and characters for plot efficiency, or, in the opposite case, adaptations become stale and boring as they attempt to slavishly recreate the book (think the worst examples of Masterpiece Theater).
Mysteries of Lisbon's great triumph is that it solves this conundrum without limiting the narrative's potential or sacrificing narrative drive to period details. Ruiz (and his screenwriter Carlos Saboga) solves the difficulty of having more than one narrative to tell by making the film about telling stories. By using João's story as a framing device (complete with a miniature theater and a magical vibe), Ruiz and company can use the figure of Father Dinnis to give us access to the world. Once we have that access, Ruiz does not betray our investment, keeping all the characters vivid and memorable without letting the plot slow down.
Mysteries of Lisbon's second triumph is in its visual scheme. They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but Raoul Ruiz put that question to rest. Despite his advanced age (69; he would die not long after the film was completed), Ruiz chose to make the film with a Panavision Genesis camera, shooting in HD. Though he was known for his visual style well before Mysteries of Lisbon, this new camera seems to free him up as we glide through the period world he has constructed—and it's a beautiful period world. I can't speak to its authenticity, but it is wonderful to look at. If viewers don't find the story compelling, there is always something enchanting to look at.
Mysteries of Lisbon (Blu-ray) makes a four-plus hour adaptation of a nineteenth century novel easier to swallow. Spreading the film across two Blu-ray discs, the AVC-encoded transfer is pitch-perfect. Likely because it was shot on digital, this transfer is almost entirely unproblematic. Detail is strong throughout, colors are consistent and well-saturated, while blacks remain appropriately dark. Though shadow detail isn't perfect, this is about as strong a transfer as we could ask for. The Portuguese 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack is equally impressive. This is a quiet, dialogue-driven film, and that's well represented in the clean and clear dialogue coming out of the center channel. The surrounds don't get much use aside from the excellent score, but when it kicks in the results are excellent.
The whole third disc is given over to extras. They start with a 40-minute interview from French television with director Raoul Ruiz. He discusses everything from his childhood influences to the latest effects of using digital technologies in a fascinating discussion. He returns for a shorter (30 minutes) interview for French radio that has a more "literary" quality (since it was recorded in the director's own library). We also get a short interview with screenwriter Carlos Saboga, where he talks about the vagaries of adapting a nineteenth century novel, including how he became attracted to the idea. We get more of the literary background in a short featurette on the novel and its author, Camilo Castelo Branco, and hear some high praise during a critic's roundtable that's also from French TV. The disc rounds out with the film's U.S. trailer. The set also contains a small booklet with a short "preface" by Ruiz and an appraisal by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. They're both short, pithy pieces that do a great job providing context for the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It just about goes without saying that an adaptation of a Portuguese novel from the nineteenth century that runs just shy of five hours is not going to be everyone's cup of tea. The film is long, filled with numerous characters and stories, and in a foreign language, which are three strikes for many folks. The fact that it's a period piece with little action might be the final nail in the coffin.
Mysteries of Lisbon is the final film from Portuguese auteur Raoul Ruiz, and many, many directors have gone out with worse final films. By combining a nested narrative structure with an endlessly roving camera, Ruiz and his fellow filmmakers have crafted an adaptation that is both gorgeous and compelling. This Blu-ray edition offers a superior technical presentation and some informative extras, making it easy to recommend for purchase or rental.
It might be a mystery, but this film is not guilty.
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Studio: Music Box Films
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