Film Review: Mysteries of Lisbon

To paraphrase a Jerome Kern song, lovely to look at but less than delightful to know is this<i> lengthy </i>costumer with its pasteboard characters and fractured composition.

For undemanding costume-drama freaks who want a total immersion, Raúl Ruiz’s four-hour-plus Mysteries of Lisbon should prove the perfect ticket to a particularly extended journey into the past. Based on a novel written in 1854 by Camilo Castelo Branco, it charts the life of one Pedro da Silva, who we first meet as a supposedly orphaned boy (João Luiz Arrais) in a school presided over by watchful, kindly Father Dinis (Adriano Luz). Through him, Pedro learns that he is actually the bastard child of the Countess of Santa Barbara (Maria João Bastos). Poor Pedro’s family legacy is aligned with the unhappiness known by the Countess, forbidden to marry his true, penniless father and forced into wedlock with a cruel but wealthy Count (Albano Jeronimo).

History rather repeats itself in Pedro’s life, for as he grows into a man (João Baptista/João Afonso Pimental), he finds himself a pawn in another unhappy relationship, that between beautiful, vengeful Elisa de Monfort (Clotilde Hesmé) and Brazilian adventurer Alberto de Magalhaes (Ricardo Pereira). Unbeknownst to all is the link, buried deep in the past, which de Magalhaes shares, not only with Pedro, but with Father Dinis.

Thematically, the film bears some resemblances to Ruiz’s 1999 Proust adaptation Time Regained, with its aristocratic concentric circles of intrigue and romance. Ruiz, however, brought that mammoth project in under three hours; this one feels at times like you’re actually reading—make that slogging—through Proust’s volumes themselves. And, in terms of literary quality, the material is a world apart, more the stuff of romance novels inflated to epic proportions. The movie is often beautiful to look at, with André Szankowski’s handsome, discreet cinematography and Isabel Branco’s elegant production design. For me, the real star of the film is costumer Tania Franco, who exquisitely and authentically recreates epochal fashions, from the Napoleonic empire line to the hoopskirted silhouettes of the mid-1800s. But the pasteboard conception of the characters keeps you at arm’s length throughout.

The film’s construction is also problematic, much of it told through arid narration and so many intertwined flashbacks that the effect becomes exhausting. Just when you’re about to become involved in a character’s plotline…Boom! You’re off on another historical tangent. This is most harmful when Pedro’s story gets set aside for other concerns which pad the running time.

As with so many biopics, Lisbon also suffers from casting issues. The beautiful, grave little boy who plays Pedro grows into a much less appealing, callow fellow, something George Cukor’s David Copperfield and David Lean’s Great Expectations—two other “This Boy’s Classic Life” movies—also suffered from.

Indeed, most of the performances read more pictorially than deep here, with the actors faithfully fulfilling their allotted but dramatically limited duties to be dangerously bellicose and eternally burping (Pereira), nobly suffering (Bastos), or endlessly wise (Luz). Hesmé lacks the neurotic fire which could have enlivened things; this film desperately needed a glamorous wild card here to make it more than a series of carefully staged tableaux. One weirdly skittering manservant seems to have more true, unruly life in him than most of the major characters.