Mischievous, elegant, and euphonious, Mysteries of Lisbon is many things: an oil-on-canvas period piece, a handsomely mounted adaptation of an 1854 Portuguese novel, a 255-minute digressive symphony of images and words and music, the apotheosis of the soap opera.
The film begins with a disclaimer: “It is not a work of fiction: it is a diary of suffering…” As accurate as that is, it’s later catalogued as “a storm of misadventures” and “a sordid bourgeois drama.” It’s rapturous and gorgeous, complexly plotted and even trifling. A boy in a Lisbon orphanage asks his guardian, Father Dinis (Adriano Luz), about his parentage. In response, a river of stories flows from the mouths of aristocrats, gypsies, countesses, fabulists, priests, and sinners.
Littered with interconnected events spread across many years and developments both casual and substantial, an ensemble of dress-wearers and sword-bearers seduce and denounce each other in the years surrounding the Peninsular War. Many of them have multiple names and identities, reforging themselves in the hopes of a better life in a more exotic European destination. There’s passion and jealousy, childbirth and executions, deception and infidelity, war and dueling.
So yes, Mysteries of Lisbon hinges around a somewhat preposterous late-1800s melodrama; the score is richly romantic; the lavish locations are impeccable. It features the unnatural yet uninflected acting of Mexican telenovelas. But rather than sweep, it spirals, twisting its viewpoint to reveal tales within tales, flashbacks within flashbacks, while preserving its Dickensian range and the essential ambiguity of its chameleonic characters.
An elastic storyteller and a Rivettean anti-determinist, Chilean director Raúl Ruiz (Time Regained) carves a sinuous, serpentine costume drama, an enveloping dream of an grand narrative experiment. His sage and sizable screenplay resounds with orthodox insights (“There is nothing like the feigned indifference of a woman to excite a man’s desire”).
Leisurely and exhilarating, Mysteries of Lisbon is like Victor Hugo crossed with Pride and Prejudice. Both avant-garde and middlebrow, with nifty stage-like interludes and tantalizing classicism, it is sumptuous and head-spinning viewing for a rainy day. The narratives dilate from within, and are full of secret passageways.
At the end of this four-and-a-quarter-hour epic, the narrator admits that he might have dreamt it all, rocking between bouts of consciousness. With the breadth of a 19th-century paperback and the depth of a heavy REM-cycle daze, Mysteries of Lisbon may make its audience feel the same. But my God, what a beauteous marvel, and a zenith for a venerable filmmaker.