Film response: Mysteries of Lisbon

Originally published on Letterboxd, February 17, 2014, with 2 likes.

I spent the better part of waking hours yesterday watching Raúl Ruiz’s masterpiece, sometimes stopping and re-watching a particular segment mostly to re-experience those odd camera movements again, until I had dreams of Lisbon last night.

About a year ago I’d attempted to watch the 100-minute-longer Portuguese-TV version but my copies were corrupted and I couldn’t find any that weren’t. When I hit play yesterday I was worried that since I’d watched so much of it already, that I might get bored.

Instead, it was like hearing my favorite story again. I was reminded of my affection for its overall arc, its individual components, but most of all for its lingering mysteries. That’s not to compliment me but rather to point out what I think is this film’s greatest strength and that’s storytelling. Despite the complex, back-and-forth nested narrative, flashbacks-within-flashbacks and the age of the same narrator changing without much warning, along with other challenges, and despite this being a 4.5 hour film, it moves along swiftly and elegantly. I wanted to know — oh did I want to know — what happened next and looked forward to the style of its telling.


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Perhaps it’s the way Ruiz’s camera reveals each scene in unique ways with slow sweeping dollies, startling reverse angles and clever framing techniques. Perhaps it’s the way each shot is lit like the painting of a European great master. Perhaps it’s the undercurrent of wry observant humor that occasionally bursts forth in a physical gag. Perhaps it’s the way we’re constantly reminded of the artificiality and the beauty of story-telling and remembrance and the self-interest inherent in all narration and that Ruiz makes those points not to be clever but to remind us of our very human complicities. Whatever it is, there’s certainly no lack of detail in this costume drama to annihilate all costume dramas.

I think for me it’s also because I fell in love with Pedro fairly early on and when the narrative comes back to his 15-year-old self in the final shots, I was heartbroken.

This is a film to savor and to repeat like reliving the ups and downs of a personal history. For that reason, it felt like a response of sorts to Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. I hope to see both on the big screen someday.



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