Capping off a nearly 50-year long career, Raúl Ruiz’s astonishing Mysteries of Lisbon is the kind of definitive artistic achievement not many filmmakers can claim late in their life — or ever. What would have been a masterpiece at any point in his career, Mysteries of Lisbon is a bittersweet finale to a 100-plus film resume, released shortly before Ruiz died at the age of 70.
Based on the 19th Century novel by Portuguese author Camilo Castelo Branco, Mysteries of Lisbon is a sprawling, gorgeous nesting doll of a film, with seemingly stray narrative threads coalescing into major plot developments and an attention to detail that justifies use of the adjective “novelistic.”
Ruiz’s film runs four and a half hours and much of its aesthetic positions it well within the tradition of impeccably designed, costume-heavy period piece. I get it — could it sound more turgid and snore inducing? But despite those trappings, Ruiz’s film is fluid and vibrant; with every narrative jackknife, it engrosses immediately.
The story begins with João (João Luis Arrais), a bastard child in parochial school who doesn’t know who his parents are. He’s picked on and troubled and wants to know the truth about his family. Early on, a head injury strands João in bed, and from this point on, it’s not clear whether the film proceeds as concussion-induced dream, truth or something else entirely.
The film certainly possesses the logic of a dream, constantly swapping lead characters and taking narrative detours that suddenly illuminate seemingly unrelated plot threads. We witness the tribulations of João’s mother (Maria João Bastos), whose forbidden love is replaced by a loveless marriage to a count. We see João’s upbringing by Father Dinis (Adriano Luz), a priest who discovers a rather fascinating origin story of his own. We skip over decades and meet the boy as a grown man, known now as Pedro da Silva (Afonso Pimentel).
Interspersed are moments where João sets up scenes on a miniature theater set, and Ruiz frames many of the film’s scenes similarly, each set up as a tableau both independent and integral to the whole. His graceful long takes — cranes, tracking, dolly shots — immerse us in this world. Rarely does Ruiz move in from his distanced long shot point of view, but the sheer inventiveness of his camera, gliding and settling among the characters, results in a film that’s anything but detached. Mysteries of Lisbon is an unqualified masterpiece.
The Blu-ray Disc
The Music Box Films Blu-ray release presents Mysteries of Lisbon in 1080p high definition. The packaging lists a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, but it appears a little tighter — closer to 1.95:1. This is generally a pleasing transfer, with a sharp image and healthy amounts of fine detail, but it’s not perfect. Haloing and edge enhancement are far more prevalent than they should be and certain surfaces reveal a textural instability that looks like digital noise. The film was shot digitally, but the hand of digital cleanup still appears to have been applied too heavily in spots. Thankfully, these details aren’t overwhelming, and it’s easy to forget about them as the film proceeds. The film is split into two parts on separate Blu-ray discs.
A 5.1 Dolby Digital track adequately handles the Portuguese and French dialogue, allowing for some immersive effects in crowd scenes and a clean, clear reproduction of the film’s romantic score. A 2.0 track is also included.
A third Blu-ray disc houses the solid bonus material, which includes a nearly 40-minute video interview with Ruiz and a radio segment with an additional Ruiz interview, a brief chat with screenwriter Carlos Saboga, a critics’ roundtable from French TV and a segment chronicling the work of novelist Branco. The film’s U.S. theatrical trailer rounds out the disc. Also included in the package is a booklet with a director’s note from Ruiz and a critical essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum.
The Bottom Line
While it’s not a homerun in the visual department, this disc of Mysteries of Lisbon still looks pretty good, and the film begs to be seen no matter what. With much of Ruiz’s work difficult to get a hold of in the United States, let’s be glad we can see his final masterpiece at all.