Mysteries of Lisbon is a beguiling four and a half hour odyssey - and there is no other word for it - into the life and times of young João (João Arrais), a fifteen year old orphan. Set in the early 1800s, the film has a distinctly Dickensian feel with its multi-generational storyline and sprawling slate of characters, all of whom eventually bear some relation to João’s unknown origins. Directed by the prolific and always interesting Raúl Ruiz, Mysteries of Lisbon is a period piece produced to the hilt, with lavish sets and sumptuous costumes that make the film a feast for the eyes.
Elements of class struggle and Portugal’s unique place in European history add depth to the story, which unfurls at a stately and contemplative pace. As the jumbled mosiac João’s murky past is slowly sorted, the film takes us from his humble digs at the orphanage and into the lives of Lisbon’s nobles, in particular the bullying, abusive Count of Santa Barbara (Albano Jerónimo) and his long suffering wife (Maria João Bastos). Providing a counter-balance is the Count’s sworn enemy, a dashing rogue named Alberto de Magalhães (Ricardo Pereira), a former poverty stricken thug who has become respectable due to a windfall that figures prominently in the story’s calculus. Pereira, long a fixture on Portuguese TV, delivers an interesting performance here, striking a delicate, believable balance in a role that’s written larger than life.
This production of Mysteries of Lisbon began life as a TV mini-series, and the feature is culled from the original 6 hour program. The narrative endures some rather abrupt changes in POV, and can be a bit confusing in the early going; no doubt a result of the significant pruning required for this abridged version. One constant is the charismatic presence of the great Adriano Luz as Father Dinis, João’s mentor and protector. Luz takes full advantage of a complex role that offers him a very wide range, and his scenes sparkle. Luz is another of those talents who have built an impressive career in Europe but are virtually unknown in North America. Hopefully a visionary Hollywood producer will rectify that situation one day.
At the completion of the long voyage is an ending that at first seems like a bit of cheat, but in fairness Ruiz does telegraph his intentions throughout the proceedings. It’s only disappointing if you’ve ignored certain clues, or completely lost touch with the magical possibilities of childhood. I’m loathe to recommend a film of this length with such a potentially unsatisfying conclusion, but I can only say I was transfixed throughout, and frankly wish the film had been longer.