Chilean-born director Raoul Ruiz is 70 years old has made more than 100 films, only a few of which have been distributed in the U.S. — but he's beloved at festivals and in film studies programs everywhere. I've seen seven of his movies, and five struck me as less than meets the eye — not just difficult but pointlessly disorienting, the disjunctions like manic tics meant to break up the relationship between image and language. Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum called Ruiz's works, "irresponsible, not merely in their dogged marginality, but also in their refusal to aspire to the rigor or consistency of masterpieces, their total unwillingness to marshal their forces in any single, concerted direction." Yes, indeedy — except Rosenbaum thought that was a good thing!
Ruiz finally won me over, though, with his 1999 Proust adaptation, Time Regained. Actually, adaptation is the wrong word. It was a translation from one medium to another, in which Ruiz managed to create a Proustian stream of consciousness on film. He wasn't undermining narrative for the sake of being a narrative underminer. He was evoking the way emotions transform our view — spatially and temporally — of the past. He was, like Proust, bending time.
Now comes Ruiz's Mysteries of Lisbon, based on a novella, unavailable in English, by the prolific 19th-century Portuguese author Camilo Castelo Branco. It's in Portuguese and French and lasts 4 1/2 hours, the pacing on the slow side. Sound tempting? Maybe not. But it turns out the film is enthralling — and also, if you're willing to relax and go with the flow, as juicy and accessible as a great soap opera, and with a sting in its tail.
It opens like a Dickens novel, its apparent protagonist a bookish and sad boy named Pedro who lives in a boarding house run by the supremely empathetic Father Dinis. Pedro is branded a bastard by other boys and seems to be an orphan. But as the film progresses, we learn the secret of his origin — and then the secret of his parents' origins and the origins of people who saved his life and continue to determine his fate.
Point of view is passed like a baton from character to character. There are multiple narrators, flashbacks within flashbacks, incredible coincidences, and people who shed one identity and pick up another and another. Yes, it's confusing, but the confusions are momentary and reinforce the overriding motif: that in this rigorously Catholic and class-based society, all surfaces are suspect. Life is a mystery play.
The author, Branco, was something of a Portuguese social-realist, but Ruiz's work is closer to magic realism, endlessly stylized. The film unfolds on what looks like the most sumptuous puppet stage ever created, with occasional cuts to an actual puppet stage on which cardboard figures are manipulated by the boy, Pedro.
Is the movie the dream of the orphaned puppeteer? It's certainly dreamlike. Shot on digital video, Mysteries of Lisbon is full of long tracking shots and lengthy takes, the images painterly, the space layered. The score serves up high melodrama and lush romance — but every so often Ruiz throws in an overhead or under-the-table shot as a way of goosing you.
There's always some ironic distance. Duels and military executions are viewed from odd angles. Lovers' quarrels are framed in doorways in front of which servants sit and listen as if to a good soap opera. But the characters' emotions aren't slighted. The camera is always in the right place to capture what's important — a furtive glance or a frenzied glower. And the actors are wonderful. Adriano Luz deftly juggles personas other than Father Dinis, and Ricardo Pereira has a devilishly romantic screen presence as a scarred Brazilian businessman: He has international superstar charisma.
What makes this movie transcendent — a fast 4 1/2 hours — is that unique blend of distance and intimacy. You can study it like a series of paintings — and then realize, with a gasp, that it has gotten hold of you like a fever dream.