Mysteries of Lisbon/Mistérios de Lisboa will come off more followable in the six-hour-fifty-five-minute six-part TV miniseries. In the New York Film Festival 272-minute big screen version, the intricate stories-within-stories-within-stories character-metamorphosing plot is beyond comprehension. In 1999 Raúl Ruiz tackled and relatively surmounted similar chronology-plot convolutions in Time Regained. Here, however, perhaps because of simultaneous treatments for liver cancer, he winds up with a visually impressive but overblown rendering of another thousand-plus-page literary source, Camilo Castelo Branco’s homonymous novel of 1854.
Shooting in Lord Byron’s fairy architecture watering hole of Sintra, DP André Szankowski’s camera captures sumptuous or bare window- or candlelit interiors, leaving exteriors dank and drizzly. For this Borges-like illusion mystery is an interior tale of tenuously connected re-tellings opened by one participant or another’s “I have a long story to tell you.” The overlapping dramatized narratives prefaced by a miniature paper-figure theater, servants- and monks-as-audience eavesdropping on amour confrontations or confessions, the artifice revels in its stagy structure with nineteenth century purple prose.
As time gets jumbled and characters morph into, or are disguised as, other characters, it is easy to lose track of them and to forget the fore-and-aft framing device. To start, surnameless fourteen-year-old João (João Luís Arrais) is an outcast teased by the other youngsters at the boarding school-orphanage of Father Dinis (Adriano Luz), whose bastard son he is even rumored to be. Recovering from an epileptic fit after attacking his tormenters, however, he is visited by his mother Ângela de Lima (Maria João Bastos), a prisoner of her brutal husband, the Count of Santa Bárbara (Albano Jerónimo). This is all but forgotten viewing hours later when lame adult João (José Alfonso Pimentel), now using his murdered father’s (João Baptista) name of Pedro da Silva, lies broken in a bed in coastal Brazil, dictating his reminiscences to a black amanuensis/novelist.
Stuffed in between is enough swashbuckling, seduction, romance and intrigue to fill several Dumas père adventures. Father Dinis is as much connective tissue as there is, to bring together in his person and knowledge the disparate trajectories which stretch both chronology and credence. Not what he appears to be or related to his nun “sister” Antonia, he later has different guises and accidentally meets and is filled in by his unknown father now a monk with a long love story of his own (Carloto Cotta).
A second important thread is that of piratical cheek-scarred telltale belching Heliodro “Knife-Eater” (Ricardo Pereira), the cutthroat hired by the Marquis of Montezelos (Rui Morisson) to kill pregnant daughter Ângela’s lover and infant so that she can be fobbed off on unsuspecting Santa Bárbara. In the hills, the mercenary is instead bought off with eighty gold pieces and gives the baby to self-proclaimed horse-thief Sabino Cabra.
It may not be significant that cabra means “goat,” but the character’s later incarnations are central. So is that of the bribed murderer, whose scar at once announces him as the now rich buccaneer, smuggler and man of affairs Alberto de Magalhães, returned with a parrot and overdone mincing manservant and devastatingly attractive to the aristocratic ladies who swoon in his presence.
Omitting here a long sequence about Napoleon’s incursion into Portugal and yet two other unhappy romances and a baby, the convolutions turn to Pedro da Silva, formerly fatherless João but grown into the naïve romantic young man whom the older French Duchess of Cliton, Elisa de Montfort (Clotilde Hesme), wraps around her finger to get revenge on married Alberto for an earlier thwarted revenge arising from rejected passion.
This is only some of it, of stories, relationships, multiple characters for different actors or different actors for the same character. Employing the similar ploy of deathbed memories, Time Regained catches author Proust’s prose freedom to roam in time, space and perspective. Mysteries of Lisbon’s nearly two additional hours, however, make it impossible to concentrate on sorting complexities. Henry James proclaimed first-person narrative “foredoomed to looseness.” Cinema, too, needs a point of reference for inclusion or exclusion. Separate films might be made of a number of these plots and subplots, but lumping them together asks an audience to remain in the dark too long.
(Production compan: Clap Films. Not rated by MPAA.)