MIFF11 - MYSTERIES OF LISBON Review

The Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) is in its glorious 60th year and if the initial days of screenings are anything to go by, it will definitely be one to remember. I have outlined some MIFF picks, and hope after reading this you will seek out these films at the other sessions they are playing or elsewhere if you are not in Melbourne.


Mysteries of Lisbon's core story revolve around an intriguing and complex plot that involves Joao, the bastard child of two members of the aristocracy who were unable to be wed. His desperation to discover the truth about who his father was and reuniting with his mother who suddenly appears are just the inklings of an absorbing saga that trails a massive array of characters whose fates eventually entwine over a three decade period throughout Portugal, Spain, France and Italy in the 19th century.


Mysteries of Lisbon is a stunning costume drama, but more than that it is also a parable of human nature. It is an adaptation of a 19th century novella and feels very appropriate to the density of classic literature and faithful to the time. It is a deeply woven, complex layered tale and the story twists and turns, confounding at times, only to return to the point of conflict and addressing it smartly. Joao is an orphaned child living in a religious academy. He does not know his last name and his obsession to uncover the truth of his parentage leads to his family story within a story within a story and so on. Mysteries of Lisbon's greatest concern is conjoining and disjoining the past to the present when appropriate to evoke strong emotional reactions from the characters marred by it. It does this so well and is an utter joy to follow and become completely engaged in the lives of these people as one question leads and branches into many more, creating a legacy of familial connections.


Amongst this intricately woven tale is a beautifully constructed world that supports its notions. Mysteries of Lisbon has incredibly high production values; from the gorgeous sets, places, vistas, costumes, make-up and great attention to detail in every scene. Raoul Ruiz, with steady and obsessively perfectionist ideals has crafted a glorious world for this captivating costume drama to take place. Perhaps what is most important to consider in Mysteries of Lisbon, is that there are four distinct, major locations and thus the setting, language, culture and lifestyle all need to be reflected. Not only is this done almost perfectly, it is practically a merging of romantic locales that seamlessly continue the enthralling tale. Along with the locations and great detail placed to each of them, and each place, Mysteries of Lisbon also thrives on its wide diverse cast of memorable characters, each with their own imperfections and desires, and to not spoil the plot there is no requirement to mention them in detail.


As each sub plot is revealed it becomes clear that the sauciness of gossip, maliciousness and eavesdropping by the servants of the various aristocrats points to some very buttoned-up perversity. Mysteries of Lisbon is in fact a very perverse film, toying with romanticism and the varied forms of love and madness, tragedy and hatred. The complexities of social status are fully revealed, having been shamed, characters turn to god and are reinvented, and others leave the continent or fall into fits of despair. Regardless of the response it does not place Counts and Barons, Duchesses and other royal titled individuals in a very positive spotlight.


Mysteries of Lisbon is split into two parts and given an intermission. It always returns to Joao and his current situation and it becomes clear that he possesses Oedipal feelings towards his mother, the unattainable matriarch, and this is evident throughout all stages in his life as boy, adolescent and man as he always possesses the artefacts of her love; an ingenious puppet theatre which is greatly utilised and brought to life to personify the big mise en scène in the movie.


In Mysteries of Lisbon no dates or names of time, place or people are used. Instead, it is just one elongated continuous tale. It is low-key about its extravagance, not wallowing in the decadence it so rightly displays (in the proliferation of gold, arts and furniture) it instead uses these things to expose the shallow piety to greed and faux comfort. The camera ignites all elements of the screen, hiding behind the realistic lighting and never missing a beat to uncover the true intentions of these flawed individuals. In particular the placement of people in most shots is highly effective at portraying the importance of what and who. One great example is when a count is talking to some lackeys, whenever they speak the exotic bird in the foreground is focused on and squawks whenever they do.


The unusual social and cultural distinctions are also criticized. Varying from place to place niceties and conventions differ greatly, from the placement of furniture, clothing, body language, food and drink and even displays of affection. One consistently strange convention came in the form of two servants bringing in separate chairs whenever most protagonists would engage in conversation. It is an interesting method that underlies the seriousness of each discussion, interrogation and confession, and after these scenes the servants return to remove the chairs, often leaving one of the characters alone in a bare room to often despair. Another great example comes from Madame Cliton (played by Clotilde Hesme who gives just one of many amazingly passionate performances) a French duchess who dines with two men enamoured by her; subtly she leaves the room, her guard in pursuit, the other man follows and they each return and come back leaving the man who remained seated in a state of flummox.


Mysteries of Lisbon could at any moment, have gone completely off the rails. There are so many diverse and perverse elements but Ruiz handles them as a master auteur should. The priest of Joao's school Padre Dinis (Adriano Luz) is the constant of the tale; ever involved with each time and place. Mysteries of Lisbon begins at the beginning of Joao's troubled affirmation and ends at the end, a finality that leaves no stone unturned. Mysteries of Lisbon is a supreme epic that celebrates the power of the story and its capacity to travel and grow and that is only hindered by humanity itself. It is a milestone in cinema and repeat viewings will yield a richer understanding for this theatrical masterpiece.

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