How do I translate a dream into a film, without losing its delicate intricacies and keeping a storyline so elaborate that it almost becomes confusing – this question seems to have been on Raul Ruíz’s mind a lot. In the Mysteries of Lisbon, he has been spinning the imaginations (or was it all real, in the end?) of a young boy named Joao, just Joao (Joao Arrais). Maybe he is an orphan, maybe even the priest’s illegitimate son. His lack of a last name cuts off any possible family ties, which makes him a strange fellow for his peers in a catholic boarding school in 19th century Lisbon. After an attack in the hallway, led by the classroom bully, the handsome and fragile Joao becomes unconscious, and the storyline starts to unfold over time and space.
A reclusive countess, caged up by her choleric husband in a slowly decaying castle of regional importance, appears and reveals herself as Joao’s mother. The back-story comes to light, the countess, Angela (Maria Joao Bastos) slowly reveals the secrets of her illegitimate relationship of which Joao is the result. Or rather she lets it reveal by the Padre Dinis (Adriano Luz), the central character of the film who seems to know it all. Midway through the film another loop is made into pre-Revolutionary France, where the padre himself gets to know his past, told by the thought-to-be lost father whom he eventually meets. The film is full of those seemingly strange coincidences where people randomly cross and then discover their mutual history, how their lives have been linked through events in the past.
The Mysteries of Lisbon is a grand project, a four and half-hours of footage that show a lot, historic drama at its most complex. The intriguing observation of Ruìz’s ambitions, however, are the current implications, or in other words, the social parallels to a society, which we thought to be so different from our own, 21st century one. Aristocracy does not permit social upstarts too easily. Not true, says Ruíz. There always was a meritocracy. If you manage to make enough money, as Alberto de Magalhaes (Ricardo Pereira) did in occasionally shady ways, acquiring a title and social respect is not too much out of this world. Equally, the other way round, a title does not protect from falling down the social ladder, as the Marques de Montezelos (Rui Morrison) demonstrates, who loses all his possessions and ends up as a beggar on the graveyard, where, though, he still manages to extract more money from visitors than his fellow outcasts.
The church doesn’t suffer too badly in this movie. The priest is the hero; all the good deeds he performs deflect from questioning his moral authority. Contrary to modern fashion, a women’s convent is not portrayed as emotionally restricting prison, where unwanted women are shuffled in for political reasons by their husbands or fathers, but appears to be a spiritual sanctuary that genuinely offers a valid alternative to the worldly way of life. It provides an identity and social security, both assets that sometimes get lost in the free roaming lifestyles of early 19th century aristocracy.
It is - that’s how I see the film in the end, the elaborate fantasy of a boy who tries to construct an identity, a history for himself in his dreams.
MYSTERIES OF LISBON played Toronto, London and New York 2010. It was released in 2010 in France and Portugal. It was released earlier in 2011 in China, Taiwan, Spain, the Netherlands, the USA and Chile. It is currently on release in the UK.