Mysteries of Lisbon is not so much comprised of mysteries, but instead a series of conversations which always lead to some sort of revelation. These revelations are melodramatic punch lines with interlocking characters continuously finding out who their parents are, where they came from, the results of lost loves, and everything in between. If the script was written in a straight forward fashion, with no time jumps or flashbacks, there would be nothing to discover; it would just be a meandering retelling of “Romeo and Juliet” (and all of their cousins).
The word meandering sounds harsh and like an indictment of a script which does not know where it is going. This is not my intent — I mean meandering as in there are multiple lead characters to follow and each of them has a very complicated past which takes its time to tell. Mysteries of Lisbon is four and a half hours long; the director threw out accepted norms for audience patience in favor of showing the whole story. It is based on an 1854 novel by the Portuguese author Camilo Castelo Branco and it appears it was filmed in an unabridged fashion.
The main character is a village priest, Padre Denis (Adriano Luz), who at first is indirectly involved in a couple’s forbidden love affair and then purposefully injects himself into their lives and then into everyone else’s life who comes into contact with their troubles. Even though the priest is the interconnecting cog in the middle of all of these characters, he is not the narrator. That role is given to an orphan the priest looks after and becomes a driving force of his own later on.
The director, Raul Ruiz, obviously loves conversations, but only deep and emotionally scarring ones. Every conversation or recounting of a previous conversation has its own 30 minute segment it seems. The characters, usually just two, sit in a room and then the scene fades into a flashback on what happened in the past which will now illuminate the present. I believe the time shifts were included to create the mystery. The author deliberately created the tension of not knowing and the “a-ha” discovery moments because he could not have accomplished the same moments with a realistic, linear timeline.
The action is mostly set in Portugal and appears to be in the early 1800s, but after Napoleon (the Emperor is frequently referenced but only in the past tense). Many of the characters are nobles so the costume designer had a true feast in outfitting so many people in remarkable period dress. The Portuguese scenery and elaborate set designs are also enjoyable; somebody really took their time to make the set look intensely authentic. The lighting is also employed to convey a sense of realness — there seems to be no artificial lighting whatsoever. Light only comes through windows during the day and the rooms are terrifically dark at night. The candles never flicker so there must be some source of artificiality, but it is not noticeable.
Unfortunately, Raul Ruiz recently passed away on 19 August. He was Chilean born, but left Chile in 1973 when Augusto Pinochet took power. Mysteries of Lisbon is his final film and is of such epic proportions it appears he was thinking about this film for a long time before he finally took the plunge.
I recommend this film, but be careful. Watch it only if you appreciate long, intense scenes of dialogue or appreciate the intricate details of period films. There is extremely little action and very many drawn out sequences with no words spoken at all; however, there is a character with the endearing name “Knife Eater.” If these aspects do not scare you, then sit back and enjoy because you are in for a real treat. You will not see a film like Mysteries of Lisbon from an American director; no studio would ever sign off on a movie this long, not if they expect it to make any money. Too bad.