Casual viewers stop here. Mysteries of Lisbon, directed by Raul Ruiz, is an ambitious adaptation of a Portuguese novel, a beautiful period piece that is both luxurious and byzantine. As the opening titles suggest, it is “a diary of suffering”, one that spans across three generations, through Portugal, Italy, France and Brazil. It is a lavishly shot 4 and a half-hour journey through a huge cast of characters, whose secrets and mistakes are woven into each other with unending flashbacks from different points of view. But despite its solid performances, gorgeous actors, and shots that look like paintings, the narrative sinks under its own slow pacing, testing all but the most patient of viewers.
The film deceivingly begins in 19th century Lisbon, Portugal with Joao (Joao Luis Arrais) as a 14-year-old with no surname living in an orphanage supervised by Father Dinis (Adriano Luz). After a fight with a bully that leaves Joao with a head injury, he is visited by Angela (Maria Joao Bastos) , the strangely terrified Countess of Santa Barbara, who Joao believes to be his mother. This begins the first, but certainly not the last, mystery of Lisbon – who are Joao’s parents, and why will no one tell him what happened to his mother and father?
From this point, the story unfolds like Russian dolls, with one flashback revealing an entirely new cast of characters that leads to more mysteries and flashbacks within flashbacks and, of course, more characters. Points of view shift from Joao, to the Countess of Santa Barbara, to Father Dinis, to the Countess’ abusive husband (Albano Jeronimo). Characters morph into nearly unrecognizable versions of themselves, such as the course assassin known as “Knife Eater” (a magnificent Ricardo Pereira) whose transformation is astonishing. Father Dinis is a constantly changing and nearly omniscient figure, seeming to have been everywhere anything important was happening in the story across multiple generations. The shifting narrators are constant, leading to disorientation akin to dizziness.
Yes, the suffering is everywhere. Characters are constantly threatening suicide or self-banishment. Major characters isolate themselves and carry dangerous grudges for years, or even generations. Romantic and eloquent notes are passed back and forth between suitors, and brash young lovers make impulsive, cruel and sometimes fatal decisions based on what seem to be fleeting passions. Watch for the paintings on the walls where they appear – nearly all of them are classical depictions of remorse, suffering, and pain.
But the film’s Achilles heel is in its pacing. There are multiple scenes where a character waits in a drawing room for someone to arrive, and the director chooses to make us wait with him. Not only do we wait, but we must watch as the waiting character gets bored, examining what is on the walls. And then the host brings in chairs. And more waiting after the host has left, as the remaining character pontificates. This adds to the realism, but too much so. No one wants to watch someone else waiting.
The reverse is true when passions finally culminate. All violence and all lovemaking occur obscured or off screen. When things finally start happening, the director cruelly takes us away from it, leading us to another long scene that is mostly conversation or flashback. As gorgeous and passionate as these actors are, look for no bodice-ripping here. For a period romance, its passions are strangely chaste and muted on screen, and if violence or action occurs, don’t expect it to be thrilling.
The morbid pace ruins the momentum of the story, which is challenging to begin with. I found myself dreading when characters sat down, because this meant another long flashback was about to occur. The characters leave breadcrumbs in their interwoven stories for us to collect and put together later. It makes sense at the end, but only after exhausting work on behalf of the viewer, and diminishing returns as the film plods on.
Many have compared the plotting to that of Dickens. This is apt, because Dickens wrote his stories in serial form, so he could afford lavish descriptions and a large cast living a twisted plot in small doses. Like Dickens, this film was intended to be told in serialized parts – a soap opera mini-series for television. Indeed, it will be aired that way, split into six pieces early next year. I’m afraid taking it in all at once is excessive. Like Joao near the end, the film seems to wander aimlessly, hoping to lose itself. It succeeds.