Tuesday, December 09, 2014

170. The late Chilean maestro Raúl Ruiz' Portuguese film “Mistérios de Lisboa” (Mysteries of Lisbon) (2010): A brilliant cinematic treatise on memories

  































     “My films are not fiction films but about fiction”---Raúl Ruiz

     “In today’s cinema there is too much light, it is time to return to the shadows”--- Raúl Ruiz in his book ‘Poetics of Cinema’

      “I chose to take refuge in the dramaturgy of dreams” ---Raúl Ruiz


These three quotations of Raúl Ruiz are important starting points for analyzing the penultimate cinematic work of the talented Raúl Ruiz-- Mysteries of Lisbon. Ruiz had already made over a hundred movies and he made Mysteries of Lisbon knowing well that his days were numbered after being diagnosed with a life threatening liver tumour.  He completed the film while recovering from a successful liver transplant, only to die soon after, ironically from a lung infection.  While one can sense the brilliance of this cinematic work, it is difficult to distinguish what credit ought to be attributed  to the Portuguese novelist Camilo Castillo Branco, who wrote the book in 1854, without having read the work (the English translation of the book is not easily available), and what needs to be actually credited to director Ruiz.  Despite that conundrum, there are obvious pointers to what was definitely the contribution of Ruiz. The following analysis pertains to those aspects of the movie that are predominantly attributable to Ruiz alone.


Young Joao looks at his 'mother' in the company of Father Dinis



Father Dinis and Joao's "mother" (Maria Joao Bastos) after she becomes a nun

Mysteries of Lisbon is a 272 minute film unfolding a convoluted and yet interesting tale narrated by a tormented epileptic orphan Joao under the care of a priest named Father Dinis and some nuns. The tale is mostly set in the early 19th century Portugal. Priests and nuns there often have led colourful lives, preceding their final vocation. For author Branco, who was by all accounts a religious person, the Church in Portugal at that time provided sanctuary for orphans, widows, and those in trouble. Either Branco or Ruiz, or both together, use the puppet paper theatre as a prop and as a narrative punctuation device for the epileptic Joao to imagine vivid tales of grown-ups in aristocratic Portugal, who are all somehow connected to Father Dinis (Adriano Luz) and a lady who claims to be his mother, who has gifted him the puppet paper theatre while recovering from an epileptic attack. It is thus not surprising that characters in Joao ‘s world are closely interrelated.  (For example, Joao’s “mother’s“  husband’s mistress turns up later in the tale as the wife of Albert de Magalhaes, another important person in Joao’s life story.) In that process, Branco examines the social importance Portuguese gave to the firstborn in a family, how paternal titles made or unmade individuals, how fathers wreck the love lives of their daughters for personal benefit only to rue their actions much later in life and the lack of fidelity of abusive husbands.

Any approach to appreciate Ruiz’ cinema cannot dissociate it from  Ruiz’ life--a Chilean director who chose self-exile in the early Seventies following the US-supported coup that removed the democratically elected Salvador Allende while installing the Chilean armed forces Commander Augusto Pinochet in power instead.  Today, the world knows the late Pinochet was implicated on over 300 charges of human rights violations. The multi-talented Ruiz fled from Chile under Pinochet hopping from one European country to another, frenetically writing plays and books and making over a 100 films. Each of these works reflected his distaste for the armed forces that took power in Chile and his wistful love of Chile, a country he could not return to work as before.  Even though Mysteries of Lisbon is predominantly set in Portugal and France, there is a sequence where the ‘orphan’ Joao ‘appears’ to end his last days in Brazil, not far from Ruiz’ homeland Chile. Ruiz forever dreamt of returning to Chile. As per his wishes, Ruiz was buried in Chile. Such indirect references abound in each work of Ruiz. While Mysteries of Lisbon is essentially about dreams, the final sequence reiterates the importance of dreams.  At the end, the colours of the screen fade to merge with empty white light. The film of shadows comes to a close. Ruiz transcends Branco’s words using cinematic effects.

Shadows and perspectives: Ruiz upstaging Branco
(the shadow is of  Father Dinis) 
A casual viewer of Mysteries of Lisbon would not associate the work with surrealism and magic realism more obvious in Ruiz’ works, such as, That Day (Ce jour-la) (2003) and Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983). Early into Mysteries of Lisbon, there is a short sequence where another kid of Joao’s age leads Joao to a spot behind the hedges of the orphanage where some men have been hanged in public view. The kid claims that one of the hanged men is a thief and his father. The viewer can see the hanged individuals. Joao is crestfallen as he has been accused of being the son of a thief and confused but does not respond as one would expect.  Father Dinis, who accompanies young Joao and the kid who is showing Joao the hanging, is merely studying Joao’s face  rather than the hanged persons, and he leads Joao back impassively after Joao has taken in the scene of  the hanged individuals. Where is the surrealism or magic realism?  Could this be a real hanging, so close to the orphanage? If it was real, why is Father Dinis not appearing to be concerned with the hanging? Why is he only concerned about Joao? Why do doors open and close by themselves in the film? Why do certain paintings come alive for Joao? Why does an important transaction between two friends take place in a room with two massive religious frescoes on the walls and just two chairs, devoid of any other furniture? Why does Ruiz employ two Joaos during the duel scene, one committing suicide after pensively walking in the background, and another active Joao who partook in the duel going on to live another day with honour? The answers to each of those questions are “mysteries” that contribute to the richness of the film and help the viewer to unravel Ruiz’ complex movie Mysteries of Lisbon with its unusual ending.

Towards the end of Ruiz’ Mysteries of Lisbon, the grown up Joao encounters Elisa de Montfort (Clotilde Hesme). She pauses in her walk and comes to Joao to state, “You lacked courage, my dear.”  This is a sequence which could have been typical of Ruiz’ cinema referring to Ruiz’ political courage or it could also have been Branco’s idea. While the lack of identity is a problem for Joao the orphan, the lack of citizenship of Ruiz is perhaps one reason for the director to choose to make this film, which mirrors his own life.

Riches to rags: The teenaged Joao encountering a once proud Marquis
reduced to beggary searching for the 'mausoleum' of his daughter
Throughout Mysteries of Lisbon, the peripheral non-aristocratic characters listen to conversations of the aristocrats and seniors openly. Servants not just bring in chairs and messages for their masters, but serve as silent and sometimes expressive external commentators within the film.  Even in an abbey, junior priests eavesdrop on the colourful tales of senior priests. Money transforms people of lesser social stature into aristocrats in Mysteries of Lisbon and a proud Marquise is transformed into a blind beggar in the course of the tale.

Torn shreds of an unread letter captured by the camera
placed below the resting pieces

The cinematography (André Szankowski ) of the film is stunning. The camera teases the viewer. The camera goes under a glass table to capture the torn pieces of a letter that is never read. Stories within a story deliberately show individuals with unreal beards and make-up, while the main story in contrast never compromises on quality. Dreams within dreams are treated differently by Ruiz.


Using the paper puppet theater to punctuate Acts

Mysteries of Lisbon is essentially a brilliant treatise on memories. At the end of the movie the viewer is shown a tired and graying Joao who needs a walking stick, but no taller than a teenager, narrating his tale to a scribe. He says “I was 15 years old and I didn’t know who I was. I went on no outings or holidays. I received no presents. I don’t know how long it has been since I lost consciousness. And the moment I opened my eyes. I thought I dreamt it all“, while lying down on a cot broad enough for a kid. Doors close by themselves and the screen brightens gradually to be covered by pure white light.

This film won the San Sebastian Festival Silver Seashell for Best Director and the Sao Paulo Festival Critics award for best film. The film was carved out by Ruiz from several episodes he made for the Portuguese TV.



P.S. Mysteries of Lisbon is the first film of Ruiz to be included in the author’s top 100 films. It was also one of the top 10 films of 2011 for the author and one of the 15 top films of the 21st Century for the author.  Ruiz’ earlier work, That Day (Ce jour-la) (2003) was reviewed earlier on this blog. Ruiz’ last film that he completed before his death, La Noche de Efrente (Night Across the Street) (2012), was one of the top 10 films of 2012 for the author.


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