Saturday, December 31, 2011

Mysteries of Lisbon

I suppose I feel right now what the detractors of Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" felt when they stumbled out of that overwhelming picture. Raul Ruiz's "Mysteries of Lisbon" is a beautiful, painstakingly considered, 272-minute period piece that sags under the weight of its overused devices. The main one that I take issue with dominates the film: the story-within-a-story. The whole film is being narrated/acted-out-with-small-figures by grown-up Pedro (Jose Afonso Pimentel), but within this narration many characters take the time to tell their life stories, usually to the ubiquitous priest Father Dinis (Adriano Luz). The first time this happens, it's actually a story-within-a-story-within-a-story: Dinis is telling Pedro as a boy (Joao Arrais, the most engaging actor in the film by far) about his father arriving at the Dinis' orphanage and him telling about what happened to him. This is executed to dizzying effect (as much of the first 30-60 minutes are). But this narrative ploy is used again and again, and once you've seen it the tenth or eleventh time, you're struggling to concentrate on the technical facets to keep you from going insane.

The other problematic motif in the plot is the interconnectedness of everyone in the movie. We come to find that everyone is someone else's mother, son, father, lover, or belching pirate-esque guard. The appeal is understandable. This is common in books, and one of the big things people say separates this movie from others is how it actually feels a novel, like the one it was adapted from (by Camilo Castelo Branco). And the first time a character was revealed to be someone else from the past, it drew an "oh shit" from me. But, as with the layered storytelling, it got irking and corny to "Crash"-like levels at a certain point.

These two huge annoyances prevented me from appreciating this film as much as others have. Reminiscent (extremely so, in my view) of Lucchino Visconti's "The Leopard," it's a masterfully crafted work: brilliantly shot by Andre Szankowski with impeccable framing, invigorating camera movement, and excellent lighting, pretty well-scored by Jorge Arrigada (even if some elements of the music are used a little too much), and extraordinarily art directed by Isabel Branco. That's not mentioning the way Ruiz has with engrossing you that only abandons him at the end. And the story of a kid with no background who finds out about his history seems like it could lend itself to a dazzlingly immense production. But even if it spirals off in directions, the film comes to feel both too distant and then too limited. At times it seemed like it was struggling to keep moving. Some may make this argument against Malick's exceptional movie as well. Oh well. They won't be reached. I wasn't here. I can admire the skill, but the obvious, intentional emotional punch didn't hit me. B-


dbborroughs said...

I completely understand your feelings for the film. I'm not really a fan of it. One bit of information that may explain why the story spirals out and loops on itself and is generally odd. It's simply that the source novel was written in serial form basically on a penny a word system. There was no drive to write anything other than for money. Apparently by the end even the author of the novel was lost. (forgive me I'm half remembering a Q&A with the screenwriter from last years NYFF). The looping nature and interconnectedness was simply a means of keeping the story going so he could charge more money. Somewhere along the way the source novel was hailed as a great novel even though its little more than a soap opera. Granted Dickens did similar writing but his books seemed to be about something and didn't poop out at the end.

Nick Duval said...

Thanks for the info. I remembered seeing a reference to Dickens somewhere and now it makes much more sense.