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At the MoviesMichael Wood
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Vol. 34 No. 1 · 5 January 2012
At the Movies

‘Mysteries of Lisbon’

Michael Wood

1245 words
Mysteries of Lisbon 
directed by Raúl Ruiz.
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There are artfully self-conscious moments in Raúl Ruiz’s Time Regained (1999) which distract us briefly from the film’s amazing achievement: to reveal the last volume of Proust’s intellectual monument (and by implication the rest of the work) for the intricate social soap opera it also is, a universe of stars appropriately represented by Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Béart and others. The director thoroughly understood Proust’s fascination with the world he has his narrator pretend to become so weary of. In Mysteries of Lisbon, Ruiz doesn’t exactly reverse his strategy, but he does start from an old-fashioned literary soap opera and arrive at what many critics (and awarders of prizes) have taken to be high art.

Ruiz died in August 2011, leaving a film called La Noche de Enfrente, ‘Night across the Street’, in post-production. Born in Chile, he had lived and worked (chiefly) in France since the fall of Allende in 1973. Mysteries of Lisbon, his last work but one, made in Portugal as a television series, and released as a slightly shorter film in France and at various festivals in 2010, is an elegant act of homage to a whole series of old worlds – a crumbling aristocracy, a dying empire, a century dominated by religion and ennui – but it doesn’t grieve for them, it mildly wonders where they went and how anyone could have inhabited them. It isn’t high art, it’s an affectionate memory of popular art.

The film is based on a novel of the same name published in 1854 by Camilo Castelo Branco (1825-90), apparently the first Portuguese writer to make a living by his pen. He was appropriately prolific, said to have racked up some 260 titles. Much of the wit and grace of the film is already present in the book, which is both sophisticated and easy. Pretending as 19th-century authors so often did to be reproducing some actual documents he has received, Castelo Branco affects not to believe in novels at all, and especially not Portuguese novels. ‘It seemed to me impossible to write the mysteries of a country that doesn’t have any and where no one would believe you if you invented some.’ But then of course he has the documents and pretends to prove himself wrong.

The reference in the title of the film and the book is to Eugène Sue, author of The Mysteries of Paris (1842-43), but this too is a canny joke rather than a promise. The mysteries of Lisbon are not those of a dark urban underworld but merely a lot of family secrets, and a bit of banditry on the side. There is no need to worry about character or psychology, because everyone fluently does what the clichés of the genre – the romance of disreputable upper-class life, a sort of Byronism for everyone – lead us to expect. What matters in the novel’s many stories is not social structure or the history of revolution and independence that is casually evoked but the recurring enigma of paternity and disguise. The trick of the novel is that we are delighted by this melodrama; and the trick of the film is to restore this delight and to allow us to bask in it.

The film (shot by André Szankowski) looks fabulous throughout. It has clean, coolly composed frames, light colours, some quietly surprising angles, a camera that moves discreetly when you think it’s going to stay still. Nothing has got here without being thought about. But this stylistic care finally supports rather than questions the soap opera, or creates any distance from it. The only gap that opens up between director and characters, or between film and novel, is that of apparently lost time, not criticism or irony. We are invited to be frank about our enjoyment of this stuff, as if someone were to teach us (in case we were worried) that it’s all right to prefer Les Misérables to Madame Bovary, at least some of the time.

The story begins with a boy, João, concerned about who his father is. The other boys in the orphanage tease him; the priest in charge of the place, the kindly but rather saturnine Father Dinis, won’t tell him anything. Like a good (if illegitimate) aristocrat, João is afraid he might be the son of a carpenter or a thief. But then a mysterious lovely lady shows up – his mother, of course, mostly locked away in her mansion and constantly abused by her brutal husband, the Count of Santa Barbara. This man, needless to say, is not João’s father, and neither is Father Dinis, although that’s the obvious speculation and the boy doesn’t fail to make it. In fact there is a question about Father Dinis’s own parentage but that doesn’t come up until later. Eventually, the cryptic priest decides to tell the boy what he wants to know.

Two young lovers wanted to marry, but the girl’s father, the marquis, explained to the suitor why this wouldn’t work. He could marry his daughter only to someone as well-born as she and immensely rich. The suitor met the first criterion, but failed the second, because he was not the firstborn of his family. Still, the lovers kept meeting, and the marquis, like many a Mafia man from another country, had one of his men take care of his problem. Mortally wounded, the suitor was able only to get as far as the orphanage (and tell his story to Father Dinis) before dying. The girl, Angela, was locked away in a convent until her pregnancy (ah yes) came to term and she could be palmed off on the brutal count. At this point the marquis recalls his hired hand, known by the nickname Knife-Eater (Come-Facas), and wearing one of the most improbable beards in the recent history of the cinema, for some more dastardly work. But I won’t tell any more of the long and brilliantly unlikely plot except to say that we seem to be in the Portugal of the Peninsular War at the beginning of the movie and that the later parts of the tale are situated in Louis Philippe’s France.

The acting is a bit unequal. Some of the young men, especially, seem not to know how to be either rough or polite in a plausible way, and just wander around in tousled hair and ill-cut Regency jackets. But the principal women, played by Maria João Bastos and Clotilde Hesme, have the right touch of eager self-dramatising: they know that in this fictional world all stories have to be extreme stories – if it isn’t death it’s the convent – and they act accordingly. In the major male roles Adriano Luz as Father Dinis (he has several disguises as well as a whole pre-clerical Napoleonic career) and Ricardo Pereira as the recurring Come-Facas have plenty of the restrained, lordly style their parts require.

The mind of Raúl Ruiz is everywhere in the movie, inviting us to recognise, as good popular fiction always does, that life needs a lot of imaginative fixing, since it regularly fails to provide us with wild adventure and comfortable closure. ‘In life,’ Proust wrote in a notebook, ‘novels don’t finish.’ Mysteries of Lisbon finishes beautifully, fixes its alternative world just as we wish it to. And only very faintly reminds us that wishing isn’t everything.

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