Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Raúl Ruiz's award-winning MYSTERIES OF LISBON opens: 257 knock-you-silly minutes

Forgive TM for not jumping up and down in praise of the latest offering from Raúl Ruiz, the Chilean filmmaker who almost always gives us visually stunning films that also play around with form and ideas. MYSTERIES OF LISBON -- directed by Mr. Ruiz and adapted for the screen (the small one: more of this later) by Carlos Saboga from the novel by the 19th Century Portuguese novelist Camilo Castello Branco -- is, as expected, visually stunning and, while it indeed plays around with form, its ideas are those you might find in any soap opera, even one as gussied-up with gorgeous sets, costumes and characters as is this one.

My headline above mentions 257 knock-your-socks off minutes, which translates into a little more than  four and one-half hours of viewing time (including intermission). What I left out of that headline (because headlines, after all, should be short) is that those minutes, after knocking off your socks with their sheer beauty, will also massage and perhaps fan your feet with wafts of such lengthy, near-comically immense exposition that you may have trouble remaining alert -- unless you begin snickering a bit, as did I now and again (as a less obvious measure than slapping my own face) in order to stay awake. Mr. Ruiz, shown at right (checking his watch, as well he might) embraces all that exposition because, I suspect, it is so very 19th Century and thus formally appropriate.

But is it also appropriate to view all this in a single sitting, with an intermission of 20 minutes and an inflated ticket price of $17?  (At least you do not have to wear 3D glasses.) I ask because, after my own experience, I found myself wondering if I would have done better watching 45 minute segments -- which is the way, I expect, that  Portuguese, German, French and Greek audiences did it, as they watched the six-part series -- which was the way in which these Mysteries originally appeared -- on their televisions. As of now, the movie theater is the way to see Mysteries of Lisbon, and if that remains the only way Americans can do it (until the DVD appears, or a cable showing, as was the case with last year's Carlos), if you're a film buff, you'd best line up and take a chance.

Within the story's main through-line (the true parentage of a young boy being raised by priests) appear numerous generations, characters, love affairs, and countries (and within these some very grand estates). Don't worry: you'll have little trouble sorting it all out, for the reams of exposition take care of that, as one character takes another aside to "explain" things. As befits the time (and the attitudes), the woman on display are weak but beautiful and the men rather shitty and stupid but only occasionally strong and wise.

The exception to the above description of the males also prove the most interesting characters -- and not coincidentally, the best performances come from the actors playing them -- are the priest, Father Dinis (portrayed by Adriano Luz, above, left), and the handsome brute known both as Alberto de Magalhães and as Come-Facas (Ricardo Pereira, shown at left). Both actors do themselves proud, creating full, rich characters that help the storyline, of course, but also add to the profundity of the piece by offering the biggest mystery on view, that of the human character itself.

The boy, Pedro da Silva, who hopes to learn his parentage, though quite a beautiful child (played by the stunning João Luis Arrais, above), proves a nitwit adult (essayed by José Afonso Pimentel, below) -- if indeed he even makes it that far (the story owes something, I suspect, to Pedro Calderon De la Barca's most famous work).

In the realm of ideas and  themes, the filmmaker plays with identity,  free will and the "theatricality" of life. That miniature stage set the older Pedro, above, plays with is seen many times throughout the film, with its cardboard figures knocked down over and over, so that we understand how fragile and out of our control are our these lives (and, hey, our own!).

The women on view, dressed to the nines, include everyone from "mom," a subservient Countess (above, center) played by Maria João Bastos, to Léa Seydoux (at bottom, left) and Clotidle Hesme (below, right) as beautiful, distraught vixens from the same family, different generations.

One of the problems with the movie, in its strung-together version perhaps more than in its fragmented, television format, is its constant and enormous "formality." This is seen (and heard) not only in its sets and costumes but in its dialog, action, storytelling and camerawork. (I wouldn't, however, have missed any of Ruiz's wonderful semi-circular camera movements which, over and over again, prove exceedingly beautiful: The cinematographer here is André Szankowski). This formality probably adds a full hour onto the running time, which may prove heavenly for those buffs in thrall but an annoyance to the rest of us, as mystery piles upon upon mystery -- and then, sort of, unfolds. (Shades of that cat in Miranda July's The Future!)

Mysteries of Lisbon, via Music Box Films, opens this Friday, August 5, here in New York City at the new Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center and the IFC Center -- and elsewhere soon.  Click here to see all the currently scheduled playdates (more are promised, so Ruiz may come to your city, too).

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