In what many assumed would be his last film (before surgery for liver cancer saved his life), Raoul Ruiz has directed a masterful adaptation of a famous 19th-century novel by Portuguese author Camilo Castelo Branco. “Mysteries of Lisbon” is an elegant, exquisitely produced jewel of a film that sees Ruiz finding a renewed confidence and voice. This is a large, sprawling and vigorous tale that follows a multitude of characters whose fates conjoin, separate and then rejoin again.
Evoking the massive novels of Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens, the complex story centers on the bastard child of an ill-fated romance between two members of the aristocracy who are forbidden to marry. Joao, the initial narrator of the film, is a precocious 14year-old desperate to discover his parentage. Living under the care of a kindly priest, Joao is first introduced to his mother, a beautiful countess married to a cad of a man who controls her fate and fortune. Gradually, the tale of how he came to be born is told to the young Joao, who is surprised to discover that this is not his real name.
This is just the beginning of a finely wrought narrative where many characters turn out to be hiding secrets, including multiple identities. As these are slowly stripped away, a series of surprising revelations comes to the fore. While the narrative is expertly told by Ruiz and screenwriter Carlos Saboga, the film’s magnificence is buoyed by refined art direction and fluid camerawork. The cinematography is both strikingly formal and highly fluid; Ruiz’s camera prowls through the elegant drawing rooms and estates of Portugal’s aristocracy, while making side trips to Spain, France and Italy, as the fascinating characters weave in and out of each other’s lives. Ruiz has made one of the best films in his illustrious career and, thankfully, he has lived to make even more. [Synopsis courtesy of Piers Handling/Toronto International Film Festival]