"In life," the major character says in voiceover about halfway through this sprawling, enthralling, operatic melodrama, "there are events and coincidences of such extravagance that no novelist would dare to invent them."
It's a sly aside in a film full of them - though most of this film's self-knowing wit is visual, not verbal - that virtually forbids the viewer to remain outside the world it creates. And it's apt, because the last film completed by the Chilean-born, French-based Ruiz before his death in August is an experience that can only work if you surrender to it.
Note the running time: 272 minutes is four and a half hours in old money. Cinemas are screening the film as two separate sessions, though you get a discount to part 2 if you buy both together. And I recommend devouring it in a single day: that way you are more likely to become absorbed in its multi-layered narrative, which moves smoothly between generations.
The film, broadcast in Portugal as a six-part television series, adapts the massive novel of the same name by the prolific Portuguese novelist Camilo Castelo Branco (his entire oeuvre comprises 260 books) and is that country's equivalent of Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga or Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks: a sweeping family saga that observes, without lament, the changing of a social order.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
It's the story of an apparently orphaned boy named Joao ("just Joao") (Arrais), who has been taken under the wing of Father Dinis (Luz), a priest with a past. In a narrative of meticulous precision, his past and future are explicated and we are thrust into a world of intrigue, betrayal, illicit passion and long-borne grudges.
Quite how formally innovative the novel is, I have no idea (it has not been translated into English) but Ruiz's approach brings a strikingly modern eye to bear on what looks superficially like a period piece. The handsome painterly compositions and long uncut takes are standard, but the framing is often tantalising: the action sometimes takes place at the edge of the shot or is seen through a window or a gap in curtains. There's a repeated quasi-Godardian trick in which, for example, a crucial brawl is played out with a coach in the foreground so we glimpse only bits of what's happening.
It's a perfect marriage of form and content and a triumph of the craft in which the stories within stories are unpeeled like an onion. It's also a thrilling experience; set aside the time over Easter and enjoy.
Cast: Adriano Luz, Maria Joao Bastos, Ricardo Pereira, Clotilde Hesme, Afonso Pimentel, Joao Luis Arrais
Director: Raul Ruiz
Running time: 267 mins (119 and 148 mins)
Rating: M (content may disturb) In Portuguese and some French and Italian with English subtitles
Verdict: A world apart
Check out the trailer for Mysteries of Lisbon: