Mysteries of Lisbon

Monday, August 08, 2011

Last year my wife and I were supposed to see a film called Mysteries of Lisbon at the New York Film Festival. At just over four hours, it’s not surprising that we didn’t make it. A film of this length is a heavy commitment to say the least, especially when you’re surrounded by jumped-up festival goers.

[Cut to a couple of weeks ago]

My wife and I are in Fnac in Portugal. For a while I peruse the CDs and then I decide to look at the movies. Being the stunning intellectual that I am, I decide to try and see what strange titles English-language films have acquired in Portuguese. At the same time, my wife and her cousin are looking at some native films. They stumble upon Mysteries of Lisbon.

The Gorgeous Spouse
Oh, this is the film we were going to see? You remember, at the festival?

Your Fabulous Author
The five hour one?

The Gorgeous Spouse
Yeah. Shall we get it?

Your Fabulous Author

[Cut to our living room, a week or so later]

Your Fabulous Author respires gently on the living room sofa. It’s only 10pm, and only twenty minutes of the film have elapsed, but already his lifeforce is seeping from him.

Your Fabulous Author
(Waking from his brief slumber)
Can we watch the rest of this tomorrow?

The Gorgeous Spouse
(Half-asleep herself)

Let me put a question to you first. How would you feel if you spent over four hours watching a film and it turned out to be dream or a confused, delirious, untrustworthy remembrance that someone has on the brink of death? Ordinarily, you might have the right to be pissed off, as this is usually one of the least satisfying ways to wrap up a story, but here it actually works. The film is so confused, so incoherent and so self-indulgent that it only makes sense as a dream. If it had ended any other way, I might have hunted down Raul Ruiz so that I could slap him in the face with some bacalhau.

Your Fabulous Author here is talking complete bullshit. He wouldn’t hunt down a 70-year-old cancer survivor so that he could slap him in the face with some bacalhau. He’s not heartless. Besides, he doesn’t have the money for the air fare...

I can think of another four hour plus film, though, that possibly ends with a dream - Once Upon a Time in America. But the difference between the two films is night and day. One of them is a multi-layered, breathtaking meditation on love and time and the other is, well... Mysteries of Lisbon tries hard to be that but it doesn’t succeed.

Ruiz here weaves a tale that goes off in many strange tangents and directions. Stories open within stories and soon this initially simplistic tale leads us into a murky labyrinth. But while it’s an excellent idea (the concept of unravelling the web that leads to a person’s existence), none of the intrigues are especially interesting. A lot of the time the film feels like an expensive soap opera, what with the overwrought emotions, the laughable twists and turns, and the penchant for characters to slap on horribly fake facial hair. Mysteries of Lisbon might have the veneer of an important film, but scratch beneath the surface and there’s not much there.

Your Fabulous Author is watching Mysteries of Lisbon. The second half of the film has just begun. He’s hoping that it’ll be an improvement on the first half - that the film will establish a confident rhythm. Father Dinis is talking to a monk. They chat a little about food and alcohol and...the Monk interrupts the scene to tell his story, marking the umpteenth time that this has happened; that a character has shifted the course of the movie to tell his or her tale.

Your Fabulous Author tugs on his beard and puffs his cheeks, realising that he still has two and a half hours of this nonsense left to go.

One of the most disappointing things about Mysteries of Lisbon is how overwhelmingly bland it is. For a film that is full of so many elegant costumes and sumptuous palaces you never get a real feel for the time or place. This is perhaps partly because all the exteriors feel like they were filmed in one or two places. There’s one piece of forest that I swear is used every time there’s a horse drawn carriage. It becomes almost like Hanna-Barbera - you’re seeing the same tree over and over again. This ends up making such an epic film feel much smaller than it should - it ends up betraying the movie’s TV-mini-series roots.

Again, this wouldn’t really matter if the human drama were up to scratch, but it most certainly isn’t. Whether it’s Father Dinis fighting for Napoleon, or the orphan at the centre of the film finally meeting his mother, or the reemergence of Knife Eater as a wealthy nobleman, it feels contrived and artificial. It’s a movie that’s meant to engage on an intellectual level rather than an emotional one, but it fails in this respect because it just ends up feeling like an art-house version of EastEnders. I mean, a gypsy with really unconvincing facial shrubbery reinvents himself as a priest? Oh, and another geezer with really bad facial hair reinvents himself as a nobleman? There are all kinds of shifting identities in the film but it doesn’t add to the movie in any way - at best it feels like a soap opera; at worst it’s just confusing.

Your Fabulous Author, tired and weary, stretches as the end titles crawl along the screen.

Your Fabulous Author
Well, at least that’s the last that we’ll hear of that piece of crap.

[One week later]

Your Fabulous Author opens ‘Entertainment Weekly’ and sees that Mysteries of Lisbon receives a ‘A’ grade.

Your Fabulous Author
Fuck off!

Your Fabulous Author takes a look at ‘Slant’ and sees a rave.

Your Fabulous Author
Fuck off!!

Your Fabulous Author takes a look at ‘The New York Times’ and sees a glowing review.

Your Fabulous Author

Fearing that this is going to be another Russian Ark, a film that everyone seems to jizz themselves over except him, Your Fabulous Author crawls into bed.

Your Fabulous Author
Maybe when I wake up, I’ll have turned into my cat Oscar. Then I’ll be incapable of reading any of these deluded reviews. Yeah, that’ll be nice...

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