Thursday, January 26, 2012

Stories Within Stories: MYSTERIES OF LISBON

If I hadn’t known that 70-year-old Chilean director Raúl Ruiz was dying as he made Mysteries of Lisbon, would I still have found it so playful and wise, so clearly the work of a man urgently but effortlessly saying all he could while he still had time? I suspect I would. Here’s a film that’s so beautiful and complex that the narrative could slip away from me for minutes at a time and rather than focusing on the convolutions I simply floated along with the mystery of it all.

Set in nineteenth-century Portugal, the film is adapted by Carlos Saboga from a nineteenth-century novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, a novel that is sadly unavailable in English translation. But watching the film felt like reading a thick, complicated text of the time, filled with characters and incident, moving forward with an ornate formalism and a studious thematic coherence. It starts with an orphan boy (João Luis Arrais) living in a boarding school run by the soft, unassuming Father Dinis (Adriana Luz). The boy, in Dickensian fashion, wonders about his origins and says as much to the kindly Father, who promises that all will be revealed.

And so it is with this mystery that the film begins. At first the answer seems to point simply to the story of a countess (Maria João Bastos), who secretly visits the boy at the school when he’s sick. She brings him a miniature theater, a richly adorned toy proscenium and stage upon which brief moments of the following story is imagined in light fantasy embellishments to take place, little two-dimensional figures moving between stage sets. After all, the story soon grows more complicated than one of the young boy’s parentage. It fills with a sort of casually theatrical melodrama of an artful kind, soon including soldiers, pirates, lords, ladies, nobility, poverty, wars, affairs, and entanglements of various sorts.

Growing to encompass nearly four and a half hours, helpfully split into two parts, the film finds plenty more mysteries to concern itself with. A character will often exclaim that now is the time to “explain.” Will this be the time that all will be revealed, secrets disclosed, an orienting flashback will clarify rather than deepen the engaging, mystifying sprawl of the plot? Maybe, but then again, it may as well not. From its very title, this is a film that announces its dedication to mysteries and encourages wondering, questioning, searching.

Ruiz’s camera is fluid and visually alive. Shot with a gorgeous, clear-eyed use of digital by André Szankowski, the takes are long and flowing, with lengthy shots during which the camera is in near-constant, but often subtle, motion. It will sweep across a scene, sketching the emotional territory and the physical spaces with equal ease. Conversations are modestly arranged; scenes more often than not play out with only two or three people in a room.

But the film’s scope expands beyond the boundaries of each interaction, each little room. There’s a sense that the camera, like the narrative, could easily and quickly dash off in a new direction, revealing new corners to explore. At one point the camera slides between two rooms, right through a wall. We see a servant standing between the rooms in what appears to be the middle of the wall. It’s only then we realize that it’s a staircase from which he could hear both rooms unseen.  New information and new corners of the architecture are revealed.

The film builds its structure out of stories within stories within stories, only some of which are fictions, or maybe fever dreams. Or are they? It’s novelistic. It’s experimental. It’s a soap opera. That it’s all of these and none of these is it’s greatest charm. Characters come and go, truths shift, or were they only assumptions? Everyone has a story to tell, but whom are they telling and for what ends?

Just keep watching. It may or may not all sort out but it’s the telling that counts. The film opens with a man announcing credible reports of troop movements, immediately following it up with credible reports of no troop movements. This is a film interested in the value of a story, even and especially if the story seems circuitous or deceptively contradictory, insisting that stories are all we have. 

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