Like Dreyer’s Gertrud or Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn, Raúl Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon seems to have been created by an artist absolutely drowned in his own world and alien to trends and fashions around him. A film whose only master is what the director likes and wants to tell, a film focused on the director’s obsession and, in this case, focused on Ruiz’s obsession with storytelling.
Mysteries of Lisbon seems to tell the story of the world, and if it has an end, that is the only imposition Ruiz accepted from the market: given that movies are shown in a way that requires a beginning and an end, he consents to put a stop to his narration, while making us know that if we listened, he would be telling more and more about these characters, to a point where he would end up telling the stories of every person on the face of the Earth (and, in fact, there are more stories to be found in the TV version of this film, prepared to be shown as a series).
Even though the stories we are presented with have a myriad of themes of their own, the main theme of Mysteries of Lisbon as a whole is storytelling itself: it’s a movie that speaks about our need to tell and listen to stories, and about their vital importance. Telling a story, telling our story, may be the only way of making sense of it, getting rid of it; and this liberates many of the characters in the film from burdens they had carried for years. But at the same time, the listener is unavoidably affected by the story too, the weight is translated to he who has listened, and his life will be altered by the new knowledge, sometimes to a point that he now must keep telling these stories. In one scene, a character (Joana de Verona) even explicitly insists that she doesn’t want to listen to another character’s story, for she feels the knowledge will alter their relationship forever. For it becomes clear that our story, each one’s story, is also the story of everyone else, that everyone is finally linked by the stories we share.
The nature of the 19th century serialised novel (of which Castelo Branco’s novel adapted by Ruiz is one of Portugal’s most famous examples) fits Ruiz’s main theme like a hand in a glove, for in these novels part of the charm was to discover the secret and surprising ways in which characters ended up relating to one another. In a sort of “six degrees of separation” game, Ruiz toys with these conventions and plays them up, underlining the improbability of it all (including a self-referential joke in which the narrator speaks about how one coincidence couldn’t be expected even in the most outlandish serialised novel, when the whole movie is a serialised novel and these coincidences are what the film is made of), but at the same time suggesting that actually, we are all that closely related, and coincidences of this kind happen all the time, especially in milieus as elitist as Lisbon’s 19th century high society.
And of course, a movie about storytelling is not just about what we tell, but also about how we tell it, about the ways in which we present our stories to others, about the way in which we represent them.
Used as a recurring visual motif, the narrator’s cardboard theatre becomes the symbol of the representational game we’re in. The stories we witness may be in the narrator’s imagination, product of a delirious state, or may be stories he’s just playing in his small theatre, but they’re never the real thing. Ruiz doesn’t want us to think we’re witnessing the story as it happens, but the story as the one who’s listening to it imagines it, or as the one who’s telling it imagines or remembers it, or both at the same time. The camera’s lateral pans underline the frontal character of the representation, as if played in that small theatre, but at other times what’s underlined is the imaginary character of it, as if it were being conceived in the mind of the child who’s our narrator or surrogate in the first half of the film. And not just the cardboard theatre, but paintings and books also appear as representations of stories within the stories, commenting on the main action and adding another representational layer.
The cinematography, one of the most delicate and stunning works I’ve seen in a long time, creates an idealised space in which the light and the lenses toy with impossibilities (two objects in different points of the frame being on focus at the same time, when the space between them is out of focus, or a camera placed between the floor and the objects on it, for instance), giving a gloriously beautiful shape to a world strongly closed in itself, a world that may or may not be inside the narrator’s mind, but that is anyway inside someone’s mind. Whose mind is one of the film’s mysteries, for the narrators and listeners here are endless: we have a main narrator, but in the story he’s telling us there are many other narrators who tell many other stories, sometimes remembered, sometimes imagined from what other people told them, and one never knows if what we see is a recollection, a dream or a staged representation. Because we can even doubt our main narrator, and the main listener: is it Pedro Da Silva telling his story to us, is it Father Dinis telling the story to Pedro, or is it simply Raúl Ruiz telling us about a world that never existed? It’s all those things at the same time, hence why it’s presented, in its narration and in its visualization, as an unreal, fascinating world of Chinese boxes, of narrations within narrations, of people listening or witnessing to stories within stories.
Fortunately for the audience, though, the movie’s four hours are not just made of this meta-consideration about storytelling, although that is a juicy and interesting theme in itself. If these stories are worth being told, it’s because they speak about themes that affect us all. It’s a movie about storytelling, but the stories it tells are also about love, hate, money, redemption, forgiveness, revenge… all the mysteries of Lisbon have to do with these things, and with each new mystery that is unlocked, we discover another instance in which human passions, social conventions or sometimes just luck conspire to ruin our lives. Our interconnected stories, Ruiz seems to say, are all about these things, and we’re linked because we share the same burdens of love gone wrong, capitulation, rebellion and pain. And an underlying theme is how these passions always lead to suffering so intense, that they end up cancelling us. In the endless stream of stories, some reach an end because the protagonists simply renounce life. As many as four characters end up retiring to a convent because they want to put an end to the suffering these stories bring to us; some others simply die. Once we know about the tragedies that link us and shape the story of our life, the most probable outcome is that we end up wanting to simply watch the stories from the sidelines, for taking part in them is just too painful.