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By Brian Lafferty


September 23, 2011 (San Diego) – A few years ago I watched the 1959 version of Ben-Hur. I sat in my seat mesmerized, so hooked that I did not take a single break during the entire three hours and forty-five minutes (which included the overture and intermission).


Mysteries of Lisbon is four hours and sixteen minutes (there’s an intermission) and it hooked me the same way Ben-Hur did. Raoul Ruiz’s last film (he died last month) doesn’t have a chariot race, nor does it contain any action, but it is just as epic.


The movie is an abridged version of a six-hour Portuguese TV miniseries. It’s about a troubled youth named Pedro (Joao Luis Arrais and later Afonso Pimentel) who learns that he was born out of wedlock to a Duchess who had an affair. The majority of the film consists of numerous flashbacks that reveal the backstories of his mother, the boy’s mentor Father Dinis (Adriano Luz), and many other characters the boy and Father Dinis encounter as they try to find the identity of Pedro’s birth father.


I don’t want to give away too much. The joy of Mysteries of Lisbon is learning about the characters and the connections they have between each other. The film’s lengthy running time (trust me, it doesn’t feel long when you’re watching it) is largely due to the expansive script by Carlos Saboga. He and director Ruiz take as long as half an hour to tell a flashback that would normally be five to ten minutes max.


But by doing this, it allows room for the actors to relax and not feel rushed. It lets the emotional investment build up and a chance for each sequence to fully and organically blossom like a rose. When a twist is revealed, when a payoff arrives, or when one mystery is solved, the investment by the actors, screenwriter, director, and the viewer result in a deliciously large impact.


Ruiz, art director Isabel Branco, and cinematographer Andre Szankowski don’t offer much to look at artistically. The sets are mostly humdrum, although scenes that take place in more extravagant settings are given a little richer (in all senses of the word) oomph. The mostly rustic colors mimic the lower class surroundings.


Ruiz and cinematographer Szankowski more than make up for this by shooting each scene in long takes and with a constantly moving camera. Whereas it’s traditional to shoot a scene from multiple angles and piece together the best takes in the editing room, the film doesn’t a master shot. There aren’t a lot of close-ups (which is fine for TV but a pitfall for movies). There isn’t a lot of cutting, for that matter.


This filmmaking approach provides a lot of the movie’s hook. Your mileage may vary, but for me, the longer the take, the more I’m focused. The camera movement and the lack of traditional editing ease Mystery of Lisbon’s transition from television to cinema. The film’s rustic and minimalist sets didn’t exactly grab my attention, but the camera movement and cutting (or lack of it) enchanted me.


Watching Mysteries of Lisbon is the cinematic equivalent of reading a long literary epic novel. The subtitles aren’t just subtitles, they’re literature. The movie has lots of substance. The story isn’t complex despite the high number of flashbacks and it’s always easy to follow.


Mysteries of Lisbon is now playing at the Landmark Ken Cinema.


A Music Box Films release. Director: Raoul Ruiz. Screenplay: Carlos Saboga, based on the novel by Camilo Castelo Branco. Original music: Jorge Arriagada. Cinematography: Andre Szankowski. Cast: Adriano Luz, Maria Joao Bastos, Ricardo Pereira, Afonso Pimentel, Joao Arrais, Clotilde Hesme, Lea Seydoux Melvil Poupaud, Malik Zidi, and Sao Jose Correia. 266 minutes, shown with intermission. In Portuguese, French, and English with English subtitles. Unrated.


Brian Lafferty can be reached at brian@eastcountymagazine.org. You can also follow him on Twitter: @BrianLaff.

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