By Eric Kohn | Indiewire August 3, 2011 at 5:32AM
Almost everything written about Chliean-born director Raúl Ruiz discusses the prolific nature of his career -- at last count, over 100 features in addition to scholarly texts and other projects -- and how it's almost impossible to absorb it all. Ruiz's transnational filmography is all over the place. That description extends to his latest film, "Mysteries of Lisbon."
A four-and-a-half hour period piece littered with interconnected events spread across many years, it moves forward with fits of intrigue, interspersed with casual developments that deaden its momentum and call into question its monumental running time.
Based on three stories by 19th century Portuguese scribe Camilo Castelo Branco, Carlos Saboga's screenplay initially follows the adventures of young Pedro da Silva (José Afonso Pementel), an orphan who lives in a boarding school presided over by the protective Father Dinis (Adriano Luz). Initially only identified as Joao, when the adolescent Pedro meets his mother for the first time he demands to learn more about his past. The subsequent flashback places Pedro as the major player in a sprawling opus that involves bounty hunters, a revenge-seeking countess and events set in motion by the Portuguese Civil War.
Despite the dramatic settings, "Mysteries of Lisbon" lacks the epic power associated with its ensemble format. Early scenes involving Pedro's quest to understand his lineage take cues from a voiceover by his future adult self; three hours later, his identity remains murky. There are executions, redemptions and character transformations set against a backdrop that plays like post-modern pastiche and classical novelistic drama. Stilted performances lend the feel of a prolonged soap opera; abrupt plot twists and stiff pacing lead to a frustrating experience with provocatively experimental undertones.
If each hour of "Mysteries of Lisbon" were simultaneously projected on four screens and relegated to a museum installation, its complexities would come into sharper focus. Viewed as a single unit, the movie contains the breadth of an inscrutable novel. The theatrical version was whittled down from a six-hour television production; that's the medium where it belongs.
Unlike recent theatrical releases with similarly exhaustive content such as "Che" and "Carlos," Ruiz's intentionally cerebral storytelling makes his accomplishment both difficult to appreciate in one sitting and an unattractive prospect for repeat viewings.
Although it has been compared to Ruiz's 1999 Proust adaptation "Time Regained," the odd structural nature of "Mysteries of Lisbon" recalls earlier surrealist projects like "City of Pirates" and "Three Crowns of a Sailor," both of which I consider to be far more satisfying and memorable. As the work of a 70-year-old filmmaker whose career has the potential for continuing rediscovery through its expanding availability on DVD, "Mysteries of Lisbon" succeeds primarily by calling attention to its maker.
criticWIRE grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Released on Friday by Music Box Films at New York's IFC Center and at the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center, "Mysteries of Lisbon" will open in other cities in the coming weeks after a lengthy run on the festival circuit. The long running time means that only truly dedicated art house audiences are likely to make the time commitment. It should find a more welcome home on DVD.