Now sadly infamous for being the last completed feature film by the late Chilean directorial master Raúl Ruiz (25 July 1941 – 19 August 2011), Mysteries of Lisbon (2010) is a sprawling, intoxicating 19th century historical epic adapted from the masterful novel Mistérios de Lisboa by literary figure Camilo Castelo Branco. With a gargantuan runtime of just over four-and-a-half hours (and thankfully bisected into two distinct parts), Ruiz’ magnum opus is easily one of the best period costume dramas of recent years and a worthy – though untimely – end to a rich directorial career, with only Lines of Wellington (2012) yet to be released.
Intrinsic to this meandering, multi-strand narrative is the character of Pedro da Silva (João Arrais/José Afonso Pimentel), a young orphan left in the care of kindly priest Father Dinis (Martin Loizillon), who begins to unravel the unique set of circumstances that lead to the boy’s tragic abandonment. Both Pedro and we as an audience are regaled with the story of his mother Ângela’s (Maria João Bastos) unhappy marriage to the vindictive Count of Santa Bárbara (Albano Jerónimo), and the hand that the uncouth Brazilian merchant Alberto de Magalhães (Ricardo Pereira) had in protecting the boy from a number of hostile parties.
As Pedro grows from a child into a young man, the focus switches to Father Dinis himself, exposing an extraordinary past life as a libertine, a Napoleonic soldier and – significantly – a lover, before he ultimately found his divine calling. With so many characters and narratives to keep track of, Mysteries of Lisbon’s four-hour-plus runtime (a six-hour version was also aired on French television) becomes an essential component, giving Ruiz the space and manoeuvrability to fully realise his enormously rich ensemble of players.
Performances are exemplary throughout, with Loizillon and Pereira perhaps the two standout actors as Dinis and de Magalhães respectively. Loizillon in particular is intrinsic to the film’s success, an almost ever-present figure in the lives of the central characters, his passive, deep-in-thought demeanour providing a level head capable of diffusing even the most heated of disputes. Complementing a clearly talented cast is the superb roving cinematography of André Szankowski, who constantly strives to frame his subjects in the most interesting, telling manner possible.
For those with the patience and endurance to take on Ruiz’ final flourish, Mysteries of Lisbon truly rewards, offering up a rich tapestry of 19th century scandal and intrigue with the type of cinematic flair rarely experienced within costume drama.