NZIFF ’11: Mistérios de Lisboa

nziff ’11: Mistérios de Lisboa (Mysteries of Lisbon)
dir. Raúl Ruiz | Portugal | 2010 | 272 mins.

Large, sumptuous costume-drama epics are a dying breed in cinema. The days when films such as Gone With The Wind, Lawrence of Arabia or even something on a smaller scale like Atonement could bring in truckloads of cash are long gone. Despite this, Portugese director Raúl Ruiz has, in Mysteries of Lisbon, given us a massive epic like none other in recent years.

Edited down from a six-hour television miniseries into a four-and-a-half hour feature film, Mysteries of Lisbon begins with an orphaned child, João, in 19th century Portugal, who desperately wants to know who his father is, and reaches its tendrils out far beyond that. The people radiating this boy have their own stories, and as we get closer to one truth, more secrets are revealed and the layers are pulled back. It’s a credit to Ruiz—and to the strength of the source material, an 1852 Portuguese novel—that none of this feels awkward. One story flows effortlessly into the next; stories dovetail, and then break apart again. Facilitating this is the character of Padre Dinis, played with great charisma by Adriano Luz, who is frequently telling these stories or listening to people tell them. He is an effective audience surrogate: patient, watchful, and never rushing anything.

Early on the film João is seen playing with a little toy stage, moving around cardboard cut-outs of characters from side-to-side; it’s a lovely grace note, this character who has had his entire life predetermined controlling something for perhaps the first time. It also establishes a children’s-storybook aesthetic for the film: scenes are set-up to look like they could be taking place on this toy stage—you could take any scene out of this film and place it into a storybook and it would fit perfectly.

André Szankowski’s gorgeous digital cinematography captures every detail with an almost unnatural cleanliness, but this works to the film’s credit. There’s a painterly quality to the film, as if each frame had been pored over for weeks on end. This is even more remarkable considering Szankowski’s constant tracking through scenes, moving fluidly from room to room and around actors without ever cutting. It gives the film an unhurried, luxurious quality, but also lends a surprising amount of life as the audience can let the small parts of each scene sink in; the decorations on the wall, chattering socialites in the background. Along with the arresting costume and production design, the camerawork makes this epic an living, breathing creature, one that we’re happy to watch grow and develop.

Despite the gargantuan scope and length of the film, it definitely utilises every one of its 272-minute running time, capturing subtle emotions and tiny shifts in characters with great reverence. Ruiz’s epic is full of life, and full of palpably human characters struggling against a society that has already determined what is to become of them. It’s an elegant, truly beautiful piece of filmmaking that embraces all the complexities of humanity and the myriad ways in which all our lives can be rapidly changed at short notice, both for better and for worse.

The New Zealand International Film Festivals began on July 14 in Auckland; they start in Wellington on July 29, then travel to Dunedin, Christchurch, Palmerston North, and Hamilton throughout August, and Nelson, Tauranga, New Plymouth, Hawke’s Bay, Greymouth, Masterton, and, finally, Kerikeri in November.

Full information on all films in the programme is at the festival’s website.

For more reviews, browse the “New Zealand International Film Festivals 2011
tag on this site, and check the Twitter hashtag #nzff.