Arts & Events

Film Review: Raul Ruiz's Mysteries of Lisbon at Shattuck Cinemas

By Ken Bullock
Wednesday September 28, 2011 - 10:01:00 AM

Raul Ruiz's extraordinary and original films have been shown at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, notably a retrospective during the San Francisco Film Festival in 1984, and a program of short films, with Ruiz's appearance, in the 90s. Time Regained, his 1999 adaptation of Proust's final novel, with Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle beart and John Malkovitch, among others, is maybe his best-known work, one hailed on release as high among postwar masterpieces.  

And now, Mysteries of Lisbon, a limpid yet intricate epic of late 18th-early 19th century Portugal and France (with scenes of Brazil and the Portuguese islands off Africa), from Camilo Castelo Branco's almost Dickensian--or Balzacian--novel of the period, opens Friday at Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley and the Embarcadero Cinmeas in San Francisco, barely a month after Ruiz's death in Paris at 70 was announced. 

Ruiz has fashioned a masterpiece that keeps extending itself out of the stories-within-stories told by the dramatis personae of Castelo Branco's story, ostensibly over the paternity of the main character, a foundling at a boarding school in Lisbon, Joao ("John Doe"), taken under the wing of Father Dinis, who declares he knew the boy's father. 

Spare, quiet, finely etched scenes of rooms within old palaces and simpler dwellings or in the streets and out in the countryside give way to the upsurge of often hysterically funny tales, flashbacks that prove as much the mythical key-without-a-door to the Family Romance of all Lisbon than to the question of Joao's identity. There's some parallel here to Wojcek Has' 1964 Chinese box puzzle of tales, Saragossa Manuscript, but Ruiz is after something else, a kind of overflow--and indeed, by the end of the film, Joao and the audience are swamped with the widening response to the original question of where the boy came from--happily for the audience, more precipitously for the now young man, who sometimes follows the dazzling plot or plots as enacted in his toy theater. 

Ruiz long hypothesized a single shot as being a whole film in itself, or giving rise to a new film besides the one its found in, and there are moments in Mysteries of Lisbon that serve as proofs of his conjecture. 

One: when Joao and the priest (whose own past life gradually comes into question) are walking through a neighborhood to an appointment, a little boy rushes up out of a park who insists he has something to show to Joao. Without a cut or camera movement, the shot shows Joao, told to go see by Father Dinis--in profile, very close in the foreground, staring off to the left of the screen--taken by the little boy back into the park beyond Dinis' visage ... a gibbet, half-noticed by the audience, stands there; the little boy points up to one of the men hanging from it and says: That's my father. Summoned back by the unwavering priest, Joao's tagged after by the little boy, who asks: Don't you want to play with me?  

(Stark mortality versus the fantasies and games of childhood--a perennial theme of Ruiz's.) 

Ruiz, who was Salvador Allende's film advisor, fled to Paris with Pinochet's coup, where he took up a career characterized at first by scores of innovative super low-budget films for European TV, then art house pictures with international stars and unusual, humorous yet philosophically and politically-shaded stories, leaves an unknown number of movies (at least in the neighborhood of 120), plays (he wrote 100 before he was 21) and scores of books of fiction and aesthetic theory. He was one of the most vital and inventive--and, finally, humorous and humane--artistic thinkers of our time, a true poet-creator of works that aren't so much new, fantastic worlds as unusually imaginative perspectives on and expansions of both the world we have in common and the individual's life within.