Everybody in Mysteries of Lisbon has a story to tell, and over the course of the film's 4½-hour running time, Raúl Ruiz is going to tell every single one of them. To watch Ruiz unravel the interlocking stories within stories that this sumptuous film consists of is to watch a master filmmaker at work, confidently unfurling his film at a pace that is guaranteed to transfix an attentive audience. The film begins simply enough, in a 19th century Portuguese college where a young orphan has been taken under the wing of a kindly priest, Adriano Luz's Father Dinis. The boy longs for his mother and, as he recuperates from a fever, Ângela (Maria João Bastos) suddenly appears at the side of his sickbed. She presents him with a toy theatre, a touch that reminded me of Ingmar Bergman's similarly expansive Fanny and Alexander.
Little cardboard characters appear on this stage occasionally, as more stories are recalled (and fresh mysteries created) by Father Dinis. He is the key figure in Mysteries of Lisbon; the cog around which the movie elaborately revolves. Father Dinis appears to know everybody's secrets and histories, even popping up in their stories in various guises and intervening to turn the tide of events. Keeping track of this character's switches of identity and functions within the plot(s) would be challenging enough, but in Mysteries of Lisbon there are so many revelations that completely upend our understanding of the characters involved in this drama and their relationships with one another. For much of the film, you simply have to follow the various narrative trajectories as best you can and trust that it will all add up to something in the end. What holds our attention throughout Mysteries of Lisbon, however, is less the stories being told than the manner in which Ruiz is telling them.
Mysteries of Lisbon is one of the most fluid and mesmerisingly beautiful films I have seen in a very long time. Every shot is ravishingly designed and the director gives us plenty of time to admire the scene he has set, as he allows the film to play out in long takes with very little cutting. Within those takes, André Szankowski's camera glides around the characters, circles them, rises above them or sneakily peeks at them from behind the furniture. When Ruiz observes two lovers the morning after their scandalous tryst, he does so between the crack in a door, or half obscured by curtains, as if we have crept into the room unbeknownst to the players in the scene. His camera continues to rove curiously along corridors as of seeking out further dramatic disclosures, and every such directorial flourish is carried off with a remarkable lightness of touch, the whole film being imbued with this sense of mischievous playfulness.
Ruiz certainly appears to be in his element here, and if Mysteries of Lisbon is about anything then it's surely about the sheer pleasure of storytelling. Characters often say things like "That's another story" or "I'll explain later" and every time the film takes us off on another tangent the whole picture feels revitalised, as a new set of characters add fresh layers of complexity and drama to the film. Somehow, it makes sense that the revenge-fuelled plotting of a French aristocrat in the film's most modern sequence is linked to a love triangle involving two Napoleonic soldiers decades earlier, or that the two crooks who almost killed the child that Ângela was carrying should later become such significant figures in young João's life. Ruiz withholds key information from us throughout, allowing us to get to know the characters from one perspective before he offers us another take on who they are.
When you make a film that runs for 4½ hours (Mysteries of Lisbon was edited down from a six-hour TV series), you'd better justify that running time, and Ruiz does so magnificently. This might be the swiftest and most consistently engaging 4½-hour film I've ever seen; Ruiz can't afford to let the pace flag with so much incident to cover and so many mysteries to solve. Raúl Ruiz died this year at the age of 70 and although he was already working on another film, Mysteries of Lisbon feels like a fitting swansong. It feels as if all of the storytelling techniques the director learned during his long and eclectic career have been utilised here; the film is a summation of everything that Raúl Ruiz loved about movies and moviemaking. It's one of those rare films that feels like an instant classic even as you are watching it, and although Ruiz's passing came too soon, his final film is a gift to us all.