Adapted from Camilo Castelo Branco's classic novel, Mysteries of Lisbon revolves around an orphan. Though he will grow up to become Pedro da Silva (Afonso Pimentel), when we meet him he's known only as "Joao," (Joao Luis Arrais) and is suspected of being the son of Father Dinis (Adriano Luz). That is, until the boy receives a visit from countess Angela de Lima (Maria Joao Bastos), and begins to learn why he was placed in the orphanage. However, Angela's story cannot be told without delving into the lives of others, and so the film begins to tell story, after story, after story.
And at the very least, you have to admire Ruiz and screenwriter Carlos Saboga for trying to translate the novel's sprawling narrative to the big screen without making major omissions. There are stories, and then stories within stories. We see forbidden love, betrayal, bastard children, duels, and characters reinventing themselves to rise higher in the ranks of society. It's all sweeping, melodramatic stuff, and as far as the production is concerned, Ruiz and his team have made sure it's all lush to look at. There are beautiful rooms, gorgeous dresses, and shots of horse-drawn carriages riding across any number of landscapes. This is all aided by Andre Szankowski's cinematography, which captures a beautiful mix of light and shadow all through the view of a constantly in-motion camera. I do wish that it hadn't been shot on digital, as it has a tendency to sap the color out of some of the lushly decorated scenes, but all in all, it's hard to fault Szankowski's work. There's also a moody, appropriately over the top score courtesy of Jorge Arriagada, which has a few lovely themes alongside its dramatic violins.
Yet Ruiz never lets the prettiness of everything take center stage, nor does he indulge in sequences just to show off. At the very least, everything that we're shown is pure narrative. However, the amount of narrative is where Mysteries of Lisbon starts to run into trouble. Part One of the film, which runs 2 hours, is where the film succeeds more. We learn about Joao's parentage, as well as Father Dinis' involvement, and we see some of the aftermath once the orphan has be re-united with his mother. Unfortunately, the 2 hour 20 minute Part Two is where the film starts to overburden itself. The film keeps trotting out back story after back story, each one filled with scandals and insults and journeys to set things right, but there's only so much one can take after a certain point. So when the film introduces Elisa de Montfort (Clotilde Hesme), who is saddled with her own journey and connection to an established character, I started squirming in my seat.
But this wouldn't seem like such an issue if it weren't for the fact that after a certain point, Joao/Pedro vanishes on screen for what feels like an eternity. This is the character that everything is supposed to lead to or flow from, yet he suddenly vanishes so that we can focus on the history of the Montforts and those around them. Considering how the film ends (no spoilers), this seems like a particularly odd choice in terms of story telling, one that further upsets the narrative's lack of focus. There are compelling characters, to be certain (Father Dinis being my favorite), but they keep getting discarded as time passes, without any character to link things together (without further complicating things). And, as much as the film loves to show us stories, it has the odd tendency to resort to telling. A character will tell another some information, only so that the recipient can tell a third character. It may be necessary for that information to go through those two channels, but it doesn't mean we need to see it all played out in real time.
And with so many characters, and so much information, Ruiz's film starts to buckle under the weight of its narrative. For all of its technical accomplishments and melodramatic story lines, it never fully engages in order to create an absorbing narrative. With so many characters coming in and out of play over the course of the story, the film's odd distance towards them makes it hard to become attached to anyone. So even though there are some characters who are more interesting than others, no individual resonates to the point where we really care about his or her fate. By the time it's all over, the characters feel more like plot points, and less like actual human beings. And in a film that spans such a long amount of time (both in terms of the story, and in screen time), that's a flaw that's pretty damn difficult to recover from.