Under Review: ‘Mysteries of Lisbon’


Life at times is cruel and unjust. Raul Ruiz delivers this message in his gorgeous film with period extravagance and beauty. Life stories of passion and grief are recounted by the characters, explaining what happened in their surprisingly interconnected lives in Lisbon beginning in the late 1700s.

The unraveling of the first story, that sets in motion the rest, is revealed by Father Dinis, who runs an orphanage. His exposition forms the magnificent Part I of “Mysteries of Lisbon,” where gorgeous Catholic raiment, luxurious pastoral establishments and lush wardrobes complement late 18th century Portugal and the story of Joao, the little boy Dinis rescues at birth from a murderer.

Like the very stories presented, the writer of the book upon which this film is based, Camilo Ferreira Batelho Castelo-Branco, was also of illegitimate birth, educated in a seminary and studied for the priesthood. And like Joao, his parents’ predicament, within the ruthless patriarchy of aristocratic lineage, was that they were not allowed to marry.

Thwarted love is a major theme. In the aristocratic luxury of the times, women were revered and sought at the same time as denigrated and discarded. Caught in the juxtaposition, they suffered – and it is their suffering that in turn has the entire rich privileged class imploding from its own misguided vanities.

The only safe haven is a monastery or a convent. Branco, a student of faith and specialist in medieval theology, paints the cloister as a place “to leave life, to leave the body.” So it plays out that the physical self is the root of passion and all his characters’ grief. The only peace is through acceptance, forgiveness and a renunciation of the physical world.

Father Dinis, is perhaps the only content character. He straddles the two worlds through his commitment to teaching, whether the young children in his orphanage or through his interactions with the various characters, and his vocation as a priest.

Raul Ruiz, the gifted director, filmed this four and a half hour luxuriant epic film during a time that he was facing his own mortality and no doubt reviewing his own life. He had been recovering from liver cancer surgery but succumbed to a pulmonary infection soon after the film’s release.

Like Branco, Ruiz has been described by Daniel Yates as a “fabulist of labyrinthine stories-within-stories whose films slip effortlessly from reality to imagination and back again. [He was] a manipulator of wild intellectual games in which the rules are forever changing.”

“Mysteries of Lisbon” was the crowning achievement of his career and is now showing at the Portland Northwest Film Center from Dec. 28 to Dec. 31.

Production Notes

Directed by Raúl Ruiz
Produced by Paulo Branco
Written by Carlos Saboga Based on Os Mistérios de Lisboa by Camilo Castelo Branco
Starring Maria João Bastos, Clotilde Hesme
Music by Jorge Arriagada
Cinematography André Szankowski
Editing by Carlos Madaleno
Valeria Sarmiento
Distributed by Music Box Films Release dates: Sept. 2010 (Toronto) Oct. 2010 (Portugal) , 2011 (US)
Running time 272 minutes
Country Portugal , with some scenes in Italy, Spain and Brazil
Language: Portuguese, French and English
Awards: Silver Shell – Best Director – San Sebastian Film Festival
Louis Delluc Award – Best French Film of 2010
Critic’s Award – São Paulo International Film Festival
Grémio Literário Award – for Raúl Ruiz
Grémio Literário Award – Honorable Mention to Paulo Branco
Portuguese Authors Society Awards – Best Screenplay

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1 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Cheri #

    I really enjoyed this movie.