Raoul Ruiz has adapted novels, but he isn’t interested in traditional storytelling schemas; his visionary approach is much too poetic and playful to pay much attention to the linear. Novelistic could be used to describe the work of filmmakers like John Sayles and Woody Allen, with their focus on the prosaic. This literary route to moviemaking, while bearing some superficial similarities, is not the one Raoul Ruiz hikes in his whirling epic Mistérios de Lisboa (The Mysteries of Lisbon, 2010), adapted from the 19th century novels of Camilo Castelo Branco.
If there is a model for this sprawling four-and-a-half hour long picture, it can be found in the colonial anxieties of Margurite Duras’s India Song (1975) or in the disrupted familial bonds of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Bwi qing cheng shi (City of Sadness, 1989), and yet the closest precursors, oddly enough, would have to be literary: Jorge Luis Borges being first amongst them. The film’s circular, labyrinthine structure—with its stories nested in stories and digressions proceeding from digressions—resembles the short essayistic tales Borges spun. Peasant and aristocrat collide and often change place in such a dizzying, fantastical fashion—captured with great optical acuity by cinematographer André Szankowski—that it is only through visual tropes that we become fully aware of the grand ambivalences of this 18th century Europe. Paintings come to life; spectres haunt estates and abbeys; a priest physically transforms and disappears at will—all these fantastical elements are captured with a roving camera, sizing up the action (or inaction, as the case may be) through deep focus and hazy in-camera trickery. The Mysteries of Lisbon is a cataloguing of a time, a time that exists only in cinema.
While the movie’s main story follows Joao, a boy without parents proper, as he grows under the tutelage of one Father Dinis—a shape-shifter of sorts who saves Joao more than once from certain doom and damnation (as the priest does with other people that cross his path)—the plot is anything but a straightforward bildungsroman. Conflicts erupt here and there, yet the traditional storytelling techniques of the western world aren’t Ruiz’s focus; instead, he dashes off in opposing directions, which at time emphasize the real, other times the irreal. As Jonathan Rosenbaum argues in the essay “Ruiz Hopping and Buried Treasures: Twelve Selected Global Sites,” this is Ruiz’s prime idiosyncrasy:
The metafictional universe of Ruiz is neither real nor realistic—only possible, or let’s say conceivable, because Ruiz thinks and films it. Whether this makes it good or bad, commercial or uncommercial, is another matter, existing off somewhere in a parallel universe—and fortunately not one that Ruiz has to worry about much, because unlike practitioners of central conflict theory, he doesn’t have to draw in large crowds in order to keep on working.
Thankfully, the dissonance inherent in the work is one of its main pleasures and creates a polyphonic, decentered world that still appears oddly coherent, not unlike the symphonic works of Charles Ives, another great artistic inventor of the 20th century. We’re never sure where we’re headed in The Mysteries of Lisbon and by the end we are literally haunted by the whole film.
Voice-over narrators lead us through one fever dream of a tale to the next, all connected in a web of meaning where no good deed goes unpunished. But there is no prescriptive ethical scheme involved here; though Jean-Luc Godard’s claim that “tracking shots are a question of morality” is helpful to keep in tow when watching the contemplative, nearly Ophülsian camerawork. Ruiz continually constructs a sense of space, of places that are lived in and not just lived through—even that painting which astonishes Joao early in the picture by coming to life suggests a whole other world, a whole other movie taking place in some nether region of Joao’s imagination. The effervescent quality of the images is such that we come away with not only a very particular sense of time and place but also a spirit that all the characters touch and skirt around. We’re left with interiors decimated by skepticism, so much so that one name is as good as another, one lavish hall as meaningful as the next.
Ruiz constantly casts doubt on the stability of the individual. Reconfiguration of the self is a theme that the camera itself reflects, as it draws close to characters just as often as it keeps its distance, observing like a voyeur in the bushes so that we might partake in multiple perspectives. Every major character—from Father Dinis to Joao to Come-Facas/Alberto de Magalhaes (at one point a disheveled rogue, at another, a well-manicured businessman)—go away, in hiding or for some other purpose (be it for social, economic or intellectual gain) and reemerge a different person altogether. The continuity of every character is tenuous at best.
That fracturing is what sets the movie in the literary company of Borges, whose labyrinth of prose provides a map for the complex visualizations of Ruiz and his ilk. Consider “The Library of Babel,” Borges’ tale of a library that contains all the books ever written. The narrator ponders the infinity of the depository for tomes, which could be used to describe the movie, one with no clear beginning and no clear end: “The Library is a sphere whose exact centre is any one of its hexagons and whose circumference is inaccessible.” We find out late in the film that Joao’s narration is actually being dictated on his deathbed to a scribe—the same narration we’ve been listening to from the very beginning of the movie, repeated again from the beginning as though we were witnessing the creation of a román a clef, only to be fully born out through our actually starting the movie over again. Now what about all the other narrators we hear? Where do they do their writing? Or are these the voices of ghosts speaking to us from the graveyard Joao visits or some place unseen? Ruiz traps us in a maze with innumerable entry points but no easy exits—which is alright because it is a pain to leave, a joy to be lost in this labyrinth of blood and babble.
Long has Ruiz’s work been compared to that other crafter of mazes, Orson Welles, that it’s difficult to not mention the influence of the great American master on the globe-hopping Chilean. They share so many similar concerns, both thematic and visual, that their linkage is almost familial: ceilings, lost sons, wide angles, absurd systems and discursive narratives are all found in their work. Ruiz’s is harder to generalize, though, because so much of it remains unavailable; The Mysteries of Lisbon then is that much more precious as a testament to one of the cinema’s great Orphic poets—the film is an ode to life in all its fragile ambiguity not easily matched. This is a rarefied artistic plane, one that is certainly shared with that other great family saga of disruptions and discontinuity, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), except, in the case of Ruiz, the jaggedness of it all is compelling and confusing for the very deliberateness that Ambersons lacks.
For whatever puzzlement we must feel grasping for answers, The Mysteries of Lisbon dolls out pleasures in the smallest of forms and provides clarifications in the unlikeliest of places. Like being adrift at night on a placid lake with torchlight all around, it carries us along on a current that’s strong and constant but unnoticeable on the surface. It reworks us so subtly and concertedly, just as Joao and all the rest are remade, that we are amiss as to how it happens. Water, both in basins and on beaches, plays a crucial role in making this thematic concern with transformation more palpable. The sea, in particular, blocks out certain sections of the film—bracketing portions that deal with great periods of change, such as Joao’s journeys to and from Portugal. There are no voyages proper without vast bodies of water, and the sprinkling of this most hallowed of traveller’s elements throughout the picture points to the surroundings’ transformative power. Circumstances make and break relationships—familial, religious, romantic—and Ruiz shows that even peripatetic souls cannot be fundamentally transformed by distance alone. When Joao discovers that the French woman he’s come to love has been deceiving him, disillusionment sets in, but still he wanders and still he retains an idealist’s gaze that allows him to give voice to his discoveries. Naïveté falls away with the passing of a wave, a slow and uneven wave.
It’s that emotional languidness, which draws us in and gets us lost in the complex social arrangements, in the deceptively simple interior sophistications. And with Ruiz’s recent passing, it’s one of the last times we’ll bear witness to a hyper-modernist work on this level. It takes a deft hand to keep all these sections on a map open and navigable, and Ruiz makes it look easy, which can only be a result of the decades he spent in the cinematic trenches, both at home and abroad, where there’s never really been much money. He had to scrape together projects with cash from disparate sources, including music videos, grants and television commissions (such is the case with The Mysteries of Lisbon). Even at the helm of more traditional films—Time Regained (1999), with its star cast and big budget, comes to mind—he subverts the conventions we so often associate with mainstream narratology. In this, his most literary of objects, Ruiz eschews the formulaic and contrived conclusions that so many of these period pieces produce. He challenges us to find a place for repose amongst the scattered maelstrom he kicks up before our eyes; he demands that we don’t simply dismiss the irrational bits as mere escapism, because, as the film strongly implies, we are all of us bound to the moral and material failing of our bodies. The Mysteries of Lisbon is neither a realist’s depiction of a Portugal gone by, nor is it a fantasy projection back in time, at least not by any common literary or cinematic standards. It’s something much more. It doesn’t narrate to us a series of events from interconnected lives, like in those Allen and Sayles movies. Instead, it dreams up a world, a series of worlds and worlds within worlds, that are charted in such a roundabout way that the stories contained within could be happening at once. For Ruiz, life is not a river to float down, but an ocean to sail in spirals.