Mysteries of Lisbon (2011)

In a day and age where even a two hour film strains to keep the audience’s attention throughout, Mysteries of Lisbon’s four and a half hour runtime constitutes one of the most intriguing and captivating tales woven on the movie screen in recent years. It effortlessly spans twenty years and just as many stories of deceptive lives and dark pasts. Each vignette is the kind of tale that could make a solid 90 minute feature, but the film condenses each story to the bare essentials and explores the lager web of how all these characters and their hidden truths intersect with one another.

Based on Camilo Castelo Branco’s novel, Carlos Saboga’s adaptation feels almost effortless in practice, an elegant dance of characters, plot points and conversations that should be confusing and tedious to wade through are constantly presented in just the right dose. It’s a slow IV drip of information, each new tidbit of information bringing new life into the film, changing the perception of character’s relationships and individual’s identities.

Knowing which information to withhold becomes essential, making sure that the audience is wondering the right questions, but isn’t getting the answers to quick as to make everything transparent. Saboga’s screenplay toys a bit with the nature of what is withheld, often keeping close to the chest information that another film would present on the front end for fear of perplexing the audience.

Mysteries of Lisbon understands that if it treats the audience with intelligence and doesn’t constantly feel the need to spell out even last detail and setup every situation, the end result will be a curiosity that satisfies through delayed gratification, one more satisfying than simply allowing the audience to gorge on answers whenever the film might become a bit perplexing.

What makes Mysteries of Lisbon a great film is not the masterful storytelling but the film’s integrity towards the characters. In a film so long and complex, it would be easy to treat the people of Lisbon as pieces of a puzzle. Yet the film finds way to make these mysteries ways to create sympathetic and relatable characters. These mysteries inform how the characters view the world and how they relate to one another.

And with the lengthy runtime, there’s also a compelling evolution in the way the audience perceives characters and how the characters themselves grow over time. Characters on the front end that seemed simply narrative necessities—the cruel husband or the brutish assassin—later become the object of deep character studies, showing the audience that first impression can often be the most misleading.

Even as the film constantly reinvents and reframes the characters, the film is also finding a way to bring intrigue and depth to each frame. Cinematographer André Szankowski and Director Raoul Ruiz are constantly finding ways to take even a simple shot of a conversation and make it into something dynamic, alluring and an active part of how the audience interacts with and perceives the characters and the story.

On the more subtle side of the spectrum, there’s a character in the film which is often accompanied by a cautious and uneasy camera pivoting around their position, creating a subconscious sense of unease around this character. On the other end of the spectrum, the film crafts some lurid, frenzied and dreamlike images to convey the disorientation of a certain character’s inner thought life.

Aside from the impeccable craft and detailed artistry of Mysteries of Lisbon, it’s a fascinating exploration into the nature of deceit, deception and secrecy. The very first question posed by the film is the question of origin, a desire to discover the truth. While caught up in the quest for parental identity, the desire begins a journey that explores the nature of human relationships and how much, if any relationship can be built upon true honesty and frankness. And perhaps the lies are needed in order to sustain the relationship.

Mysteries of Lisbon could have been a narratively intriguing, yet stifling work in the hands of more formal, ridged and conventional filmmakers. However, the constant desire to evolve, progress and interact with the filmmaking as an integral part of a dynamic and fluid story, ever shifting, always changing, displays a true passion for the creative process across a stratosphere of filmic disciplines.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing