This week in movies you missed: Remarkable coincidences! Swooning! Duels! Ridiculously effective disguises! Yes, we're dealing with a plot based on a 19th-century novel — as realized by an amazing filmmaker.
What You Missed
Portugal does "Masterpiece Theater" with this adaptation of Camilo Castelo Branco's 1854 novel from recently deceased Chilean director Raoul Ruiz. The plot centers on an apparently orphan boy, Pedro (João Arrais), raised at a school run by the kindly Father Dinis (Adriano Luz). His true parentage is the film's first "mystery." (Hint: In 19th-century novels, every obscure orphan turns out to belong to the nobility.)
Once that's been solved, we explore a bunch of other plots and subplots, most of them linked by the protean figure of Dinis, who has borne various colorful identities and names in his life. He's not the only quick-change artist: Another central character is the dashing Alberto de Magalhães (Ricardo Pereira), a self-made millionaire who once went by the name Knife Eater.
As for our ostensible hero, young Pedro, he remains on the periphery of the action, but grows up to take center stage at the end.
Why You Missed It
Mysteries of Lisbon is four hours and 26 minutes long. It's actually a trimmed version of a six-hour TV miniseries. Needless to say, it only played a few American theaters.
Should You Keep Missing It?
If you love 19th-century Romantic literature, absolutely not. If you're not sure what that even is, read on.
"Romanticism," in 19th-century lit, does not mean Twilight-style obsessive romance. It means heightened reality — realism with surreal, gothic and theatrical elements. Today, many novelists are influenced by the movies. Back then, many novelists were influenced by the theater, which was their pop culture.
Like movies and TV do today, the theater tended to exaggerate everything, but often in beautiful, crazy ways. It inspired novels like Stendhal's The Red and the Black, Brontë's Wuthering Heights and Balzac's Lost Illusions, which alternate between the nitty-gritty of real life, dramatic silliness and some truly out-there, almost Lynchian moments.
Those heightened elements don't come through very well in "Masterpiece Theater"-style adaptations of classic novels. Their method tends to be realist, not romantic. They take out stuff like the swooning, because it seems silly to modern audiences, and downplay the moments of gothic horror. That approach is great for the rational works of Jane Austen, but not so great for the novels I mentioned.
As a fan of those novels, I love what Ruiz did in Mysteries of Lisbon. He didn't portray the novel's often soap-opera-ish events in a flat, realist style. He found a heightened style that's appropriate to the period, because it's based on the theater. Every image is carefully framed, with intense attention to light.
Often, we see the characters arranged in a tableau from a moderate distance, just as we would in the theater. Sometimes the frame is positioned to keep the action off-stage and make us wonder what the hell is going on. Sometimes we watch from the perspective of an eavesdropping servant, who reminds us there's another world beyond the self-dramatizing travails of the aristocracy. (Writers back then were obsessed with eavesdropping, surveillance and the lack of privacy. That didn't start with the internet.)
Ruiz makes it obvious what he's doing. Early on, Pedro receives the gift of a miniature paper theater where he can put cut-out "actors" on stage (pictured above). Throughout the series, Ruiz cuts back to the paper theater, where we see a two-dimensional tableau representing the scene we're about to watch unfold.
It's a way of saying that the theatrical style was as central to storytelling back then as the internet and digital image manipulation are to storytelling now. (And that's why so many current movies have their own self-consciously hyperreal elements.)
But Mysteries of Lisbon also gives us experiences we couldn't get in the actual theater, like ravishingly beautiful outdoor scenes, a sense of depth, and close-ups of the actors, who are excellent at conveying what their stilted, poetic dialogue conceals.
The film's plot is rambling (like the novel, I assume), and none of the characters leaves an indelible impression. Yet the scenes, the settings and the light do. It's not a boring four-and-a-half hours. It's a little like slipping into a trance and visiting the places and people of another era — not as they really were, but as they wanted to be. And, at the end, when Ruiz uses some more modern cinematic devices to remind us we've been in that trance, it's strangely affecting.
Verdict: It's not my favorite film of 2011, but it's not like anything else, and it will stick with me.
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