Mysteries of Lisbon

Mysteries of Lisbon (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

Joao (João Arrais) is a fifteen-year-old orphan living in a Catholic school who has no knowledge of the origins of his biological parents. The teasing from the other children has become unbearable, at one point violent, so he insists Father Dinis (Adriano Luz) to inform him if he might know anything about his mother and father. The information that Joao, whose real name turns out to be Pedro, is about to learn is so unbelievable at times that it almost reflects the uplifting, fantastical stories in books that tend to make a mark in children’s imaginations.

Based on a novel by Camilo Castelo Branco and screenplay by Carlos Saboga, “Mysteries of Lisbon” is an encompassing experience of memories, wish fulfillments, and bizarre details while maintaining ties to the realities of nineteenth century Portugal. It is a gloriously understated exercise of craft from those behind the camera as well as those in front, but its very long running time can sometimes be challenging on top of complicated character connections, double and triple identities, and from which perspective—past or present—the story is being told.

The film is exacting in detail, from the spacious and well-decorated rooms to the fibers of men and women’s clothing as they slinked across the hall to offer venom wrapped in back-handed compliments or genuine niceties meant to uplift. Looking at the space the characters inhabit fees like staring into a time capsule that beckons. There are plenty of instances when I wondered how it would be like to delicately caress a painting or wallpaper for the sake of wanting to have knowledge of their texture, to take a stroll around the school grounds and inhale the dancing wind, and to be in a horse carriage while keeping track of the staccato rhythm of the hooves beating the ground. Every scene looks and feels magnificent without becoming ostentatious and distracting.

The film juggles a lot of main players and each is given the chance make his or her mark. Aside from Pedro who we cannot help but want what’s best for, Father Dinis proves to have more layers to him than just a simple uniform symbolizing his allegiance to his faith. Kindness is in his bones but we learn details about his past that suggests he may not always have been that way. This can be supported by the reactions of the people he encounters as a priest who used to know him as someone else.

Another fascinating character is Angela (Maria João Bastos), Pedro’s mother, a Countess who is a prisoner in her own home. It begs that question of the suffering a person can take and, perhaps more importantly, willing to endure further even after the agent of oppression is no longer around. Because the characters are given time to develop, we care for them even if we may not like who they were in the past or come to be in future. Conversely, select characters who most of us would find despicable initially are given time to overturn our expectations.

“Mistérios de Lisboa,” directed by Raoul Ruiz, takes its time to move from one point to another that it will likely test the patience of its audience. It does not help that it is occasionally tonally flat—which is very strange considering it touches upon the romance of the times. With its second half, especially, questioning how it is even related to web-like events that unspooled in the first is more than justified, it is necessary. However, the film is an enigma very much worth looking into. The more we come up with possibilities and explanations in our minds, the easier it is to appreciate the imagination painted on the screen and the talent behind the brushstrokes.

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