Mysteries of Lisbon

10/09/2011

Portugal, Brazil & France / 2010 / Portuguese, French & English

Directed by Raúl Ruiz

With Adriano Luz, Maria João Bastos, Ricardo Pereira

Still from 'Mysteries of Lisbon'

The diversity of Raúl Ruiz’s prolific, nearly fifty-year career in cinema resists generalization, reduction, and easy paralleling. One wonders if perhaps he most identified with, more than any of the characters in Mysteries of Lisbon (an enormous and elegant cherry to top his artistic achievements), Father Dinis, who adopts masks and inhabits different characters in order to gain access to the enigmas that tantalize him. If a hidden wunderkammer belonging to Ruiz were discovered, one similar to the inquisitive priest’s secret room, what evidence of his past guises would it contain? Fabricated diaries of Sadegh Hedayat, Proust, and Hawthorne? The fateful pistol brought out at a Mexican telenovela‘s cliff-end? The banner of a revolutionary Allende supporter forced to flee Pinochet’s fascist takeover? As with any time and place, the mysteries are there only in they eyes of someone open-minded enough to perceive and pursue them. But in the Lisbon of Castelo Branco’s writing, it seems one only need wait patiently for the twists of fortune to illuminate them.

Like the priest/disguised-investigator who turns up continually throughout it, the film itself takes on different voices of its characters and, in recounting personal histories, gleans from memory a picture of the present, built of fragmented details. In a supremely duplicitous universe, and seen in different recollections over a time period from the late 18th to the mid-19th Centuries, various interconnected characters are drawn together – not in the interest of building a story, but in inventing individual identities for them and, as a summation of all their histories, the identity of one young boy, João, a foundling who has spent all his life in a Lisbon seminary. One of the few objects that João can call his own is a portrait of himself, a stiff and formal profile done without his consent that effectively forms his self-image, created for him. The other is a paper diorama of a stage, left to him by his long-lost mother while he was in bed hallucinating from a fever. Throughout the film he will see episodes from his life dramatized on that two-dimensional toy set, small and manipulable but still moving along out of his control, rendering him but a spectator.

With the help of Father Dinis, a shadowy mentor and parental figure, João comes to know that he is in fact of noble birth, and that the whereabouts of his mother are closer than he could have imagined. Married to the detestable Count of Santa Barbara, Angela de Lima has spent many years locked in their manor, only now breaking free to find her son. Her current husband cares more about racing dogs than people, and has taken up with his maid, Eugenia, in full view of everyone else. We find out that, even before João was born, his and Father Dinis’ lives would be intertwined, when his biological father came staggering into the priest’s care, wounded by an assassin hired by Angela’s own father. The priest saved the boy from the same killer whom João’s grandfather paid to do away with him and keep his birth a secret. Numerous parallels arise between Father Dinis’ backstory, as it gradually develops, and the fate of the young man now known as Pedro (formerly João) who, having grown up as a cypher, gains an identity by knowing his mother, and only then begins to understand that his being is a pooling, a filtering-down of pain, torment, loss, and upheaval, the size of which he can never appreciate fully. Elements of the boy’s own story repeat back on themselves as echoes further down the line, like marbles circling in a funnel at varying speeds.

Returning from defending Angela’s honor from her husband (the one from whom she ran away, and who accused her of infidelity), Father Dinis passes by a man doing the same thing as he – standing up for her reputation. This mysterious capitalist, freshly returned from the New World, is a man of means by the name of Alberto de Magalhaes. This information does not really solve the puzzle of who he is, and Father Dinis is compelled to investigate. Somewhere he has seen this man before, and there is no doubt that the man will turn up again. In fact this Magalhaes is looking over he boy and his mother as well, a guardian angel of a darker sort (is he a robber baron or a slave-trader?) playing on the outskirts of society and pointing out the hypocrisy of the dukes and dutchesses, the inverse of the kind but equally mysterious priest.

Still from 'Mysteries of Lisbon'It is only when he is a young adult (and a shaggy-haired Romantic poet) that Pedro encounters a tormented French noblewoman, Elisa de Monfort, and gets captivated by her. Unbeknownst to him she passed very close to him years ago, coming to Lisbon and meeting Father Dinis, who noticed instantly and acted quickly to thwart her plan to kill Magalhaes, a planned vengeance for something done long ago. Acting as a paper doll, fictitious to himself, Pedro allows her and other passing figures to guide his destiny because he does not imagine there could be any other way. They are each pieces in one another’s personal puzzle, and each, when snapped into place, can just as easily be another’s death card, indentified too late. The unending quest and the unceasing urge for each of the characters is to discover the connections between one another; in Europe, where one’s name creates one’s place in the world, they all must go beyond the essential identity that society gives them to understand the deeper complexities of who they are.

Cinematography, while not to be conflated with any aspect of the three dimensional, is itself three-dimensionality rendered. While not containing it, the live-action image has everything to do with its own relationship to the physical world. Ruiz uses, paramount over anything else, movement as a means to understand and explore this concept. Manoel De Oliveira, who prefers a still camera, is bound to the theatrical and at the same time more devoted to a purer filmmaking – an approach to the artform that, if it generates any motion at all, builds it through the aggregate impression of the montage. In this sense Ruiz is freer from both harnesses, his gaze stepping forth and inhabiting the scenes, and with an intimate, across-the-veil presence, the camera itself having girth and posture within the film’s rooms. It doesn’t creep, orbit docilely, or blunder unmotivated as a person might – its motions are prescribed, faithful, leading us pneumatically on a voyeuristic glide as though pushed by an unseen emotional current, then slowing and coming to a halt.

The reference to Galileo, made early in the film, is entirely appropriate to Ruiz’s visual practice – the notion that energy is something that acts upon an object, changing it as well as its position. Like the building of Pedro’s past and future self through a collision of broadly-distributed trajectories, the camera’s movement creates the composition through introducing elements; rather than distending or distorting, it reveals (or so it would seem), gradually infusing a scene with detail. At the same time the elements of the scene – figures, props, walls, etc. – act as paper cutouts on the diorama’s toy stage, shuffling to conceal, making things strange, forest-like, shifting. So rather than fleshing out and insisting upon the physicality of the images, the sliding of perspective around them and through their midst turns out to be more of an obscuring strategy, heightening the feeling that nothing is what it seems, and could never be.

Still from 'Mysteries of Lisbon'And yet, in spite of the immersive approach to setting the stage (as it were) and angling the viewer’s perspective, Ruiz persistently cordons off parts of the frame with curtains, integrates unlikely and otherwise unseen corners of a scene with a camera obscura superimposition, or boxes the action into a single window, doorway, or narrow arch. The proscenium at the end of a concert hall, echoed forever after from João’s diorama, offers an anamorphic puzzle of depth, being itself a vanishing point but experienced through an indeterminate space that is as foreshortened as it is infinite. Scenes will transpire at a distance, at times shot from the next room, and asynchronous two-shots (such as an in-focus character opposite a shadow or a figure blurred like a thumbprint in ink) play with imbalance. Gauchely emotional or symbol-driven these visual contrivances may be, but they never fail in appearing to be resultant of the light itself, rather than spun and positioned by artful human hands. This is a world that is by turns artificial and deeply authentic, oftentimes being both within the span of a single gesture. The film has the appearance of a formally meticulous period reconstruction that at the same time tends toward vivid naturalism, always reminding us of its false pretenses. All the while natural lighting is used to its most oppressive potential. Many of the scenes in the heavy-curtained interiors are in eye-straining darkness, lit only by a shaft or distracting square of sunlight. We are not, thankfully, behind Kubrick’s lens, trying to collect as much light as it can, beyond even what they eye can discern. Here, what is dark is generally black, and the visible spectrum is rendered as placid fluidity, like clouded water lit by sun, or in layers like fine velvet.

In some ways not unlike a telenovela (it was produced as a six-hour miniseries for French TV – but this review refers to the scant, 257-minute theatrical cut), the film goes from one revelation to the next, building to a fuller picture, which at the same time grows more mysterious with its increasing density. The digressive sprawl peculiar to the 19th Century novel, kitchen sink in the best way possible and often advanced by pure fate, presents considerable adaptation allure to a contemporary labyrinth fanatic. But Mysteries of Lisbon comes off not so much rhizomatic as like a jungle gym, with numerous points of possible intersection, traversed as a lacunal grid of dubious coincidences. The layering of motivation onto these heavy and arbitrary rhymes, the plumbing of imperfect and partial paths of memory for reusable fragments that flow as a patchwork of past and present, are what cause the film to transcend a preordained correlation of events and at the same time make a case for it as an object of study.

Ruiz, the cinema’s undercover Borges, was always most successful not using a complex or enigmatic conceit but with an instance, fact, or idea that is itself mundane, a generic input that he convolves with its own intricacies, feeding it back upon itself like sunlight caught in a mirror. In his eye the commonplace transforms to baroque and esoteric, with innocent clues giving way to endless corridors of equally real possibilities. The story already having been mapped out in a literary progression, what remains (and this is the fun of adaptation) is achieving in individual events a contiguous magnetic charge that pins them together, rotates them in some kind of heady sync. This Ruizian interpretation (could it be of any other kind?) does not try to magnify the inherent details of the story, but to extrapolate existing themes (cloying social mores, French imperialism, economic backwash of the slave trade) and surface elements, in order to make of them a forest or a maze, illusory and endlessly exasperating.

Still from 'Mysteries of Lisbon'The accounts that the characters array differ from one another in subtle but profound ways, corresponding to their personal qualities. Memory acts as the glass display of their inner worlds. The Count of Santa Barbara’s is a darkly indifferent place, where social climbers at a ball revolve schematically, surrounded by silence; in Father Dinis’ memory (recalling his days as a French officer in love with Monfort’s mother, a woman beholden to his loveless, self-involved childhood friend Benoit) he himself is a distant spectator plagued by the paranoia of just-perceived secrets; in an grown-up Pedro’s story things shift from the powerlessness of his childhood to a world of inscrutable riddles, of cards that reveal no face regardless of how many times they are turned over. Of course every flashback has the unique qualities of its narrator (not to mention things that happen that they could not possibly know about, and so must be speculating), but the imperfections also seem to go beyond them, to take on a life of their own. The young Father Dinis (before he became a priest, that is) takes over the voice of the narration halfway through his story, as though he were present and telling it rather than the man sitting in the room with Monfort.

For an artist so interested in the creation of meaning, Ruiz seemed at the same time bent on baffling it at every possible opportunity. The politics of interpretation, of denotation, are always on the table, whether applied to a visual regime, as in 1979’s The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (which dissects the nature of spectatorship and the function of art in social myth formation) or to language, as in 1982’s On Top of the Whale (whose polyglot and shifting morphology take it beyond the absurd, into a brutally atavistic dream of sexual combat and socialist colonialism) – to name but two drops in the ocean of his career. Like a doctor fracturing the leg he means to examine, so too does he look at meaning in terms of society, and the multiple realities, occurring at home and abroad, in the moment and in history, that work to hold people in place, rotating and perpetually resurfacing in one another’s affairs. The mobility of Ruiz’s visual strategies contrasts with (and almost mocks) the way that the characters seem stuck fast, albeit on a trundling, mechanical roller coaster.

Not content to dwell on the surface degree of social construct in which the characters exist, he makes it a metaphor for itself, the characters’ complacent attitudes toward destiny (engendered by their culture) writ large in their individual encounters with it. And no one is as trapped by the unknown forces of society and the world as poor Pedro, once called João, née Pedro da Silva. He is the convergence point of multiple legacies of pain, like so many fuses leading to a single bundle of dynamite, so it is no wonder his life bears the imprint of battlefields, brutality, frustration, doomed love. To see this, to grasp the hidden corners and connections that invented his life for him, he would have to step out of his inherited clothing, and be external to society, in a state of endless self-invention. Like Ruiz did perpetually throughout his artistic career – through various nationalities, roles, and media – he would have to look out at the world from points altogether separate from his own experience, but hang on to the keepsakes, hiding them away as reminders of himself.

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