Mysteries of Lisbon, Raul Ruiz, 266 mins (PG)


Raul Ruiz, who died this year, has left us with a surreal four-hour story, set in 19th-century Portugal, that reclaims cinema as the language of dream

Film, as last week's Hugo never tired of reminding us, is the language of dream – but looking at the prosaic nature of most cinema, you'd think 90 per cent of directors had never slept a wink in their lives.

One film-maker who did understand dream – as intimately as Buñuel, Tarkovsky or David Lynch – was Raul Ruiz, who died earlier this year. The Chilean-born, French-based, internationally nomadic director was indefatigably productive – his filmography lists 114 titles since the 1960s – and his fragmentary, fanciful oeuvre was like one vast sketchpad for recording images from a supremely fertile unconscious.

With time, this ferociously experimental artist reached a compromise of sorts with the mainstream; this involved working with stars such as Catherine Deneuve and John Malkovich, and making his own idiosyncratic version of prestige cinema. He offered an elegant reading of Proust in 1999's Time Regained, and shortly before his death, revisited the rarefied realm of costume drama in the vast and magnificent Mysteries of Lisbon, released in cinemas as an abridged version of a six-hour mini-series for Portuguese television. Mysteries is based on a 19th-century novel by Camilo Castelo Branco that one assumes is celebrated in its native country – although I like to imagine Portuguese viewers as being as baffled as the rest of us, wondering if Ruiz and screenwriter Carlos Saboga invented the whole thing from scratch.

A dense web of a story begins with a foundling boy, known only as Joao, wondering who he is and how he came to be raised in the college run by solemnly avuncular priest Father Dinis (Adriano Luz). Before long, Joao learns that he is the son of Angela (Maria Joao Bastos), a noblewoman with a tragic past. Suddenly the film sidetracks to introduce a mysterious gypsy on a mission to strike a shadowy deal with an assassin named "Knife-Eater". Then we skip to Lisbon high society, and the appearance of a Brazilian named Alberto de Magalhaes (Ricardo Pereira), a Byronic swaggerer of such dark charisma that women faint when he enters the room. Father Dinis learns the surprising truth about his own parentage; there's a dramatic episode from the Napoleonic wars; a mysterious French femme fatale (Clotilde Hesme) turns up with a score to settle; and more, far more, besides.

The whole affair would be wildly perplexing if Ruiz didn't treat it all with such impeccable decorum. Mysteries is strikingly handsome and well-dressed, and as stately as the great costume dramas of Luchino Visconti. And yet, on a subliminal level that you can't always get a purchase on, Mysteries is also utterly strange.

Staged with deliberate theatricality and shot in long gliding takes by André Szankowski, the film is nothing if not august, but every now and then, in its digressive windings and loopings, it reveals some flourish designed to confound and amaze. Ruiz's visual tricks subtly erode the sense of realism: rooms lose their solidity as actors and furniture glide around as if on castors; simple but sly camera moves allow the protean Dinis to appear and disappear at will. There are some wilder touches too – notably Magalhaes's servant, apparently on secondment from Portugal's Ministry of Silly Tap Dances.

This labyrinthine sprawl of narratives within narratives – akin to Balzac, Dickens and period pulp master Eugène Sue – feels as if it could have expanded infinitely. A majestically eerie ending makes you look back and wonder what the film was really about. A quasi-realistic depiction of 19th-century Portugal? A story told by the adult Joao, trying to make sense of his life? Or one made up by a young boy wiling away hours on his sickbed?

All of the above, or none. The certainties you expect from historical drama are systematically melted down. Characters' identities are unstable, in permanent flux: Father Dinis has several names and guises, while Joao is played, at different times of his life, by three separate actors.

Four-plus hours (with intermission) is quite an ask, but Mysteries is time well spent – not in a narrow value-for-money way, but in the sense that it offers a hallucinatory experience of fluid time passing, speeding up, slowing down, being suspended. It's tempting to say that Mysteries of Lisbon is "the 19th-century novel on acid". But this isn't strictly true: the film isn't surreal per se, so much as homeopathically dosed with surrealism, so that the quality of dream runs through every moment at a deep, not always detectable level. Mysteries of Lisbon is a subtle delirium, and a magnificent late magnum opus from a director who was one of a kind.

Next Week:

Jonathan Romney sees The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, as reinvented by David Fincher

Film Choice

Trucking, with baby on board: Pablo Giorgelli's prize-garlanded Argentinian feature Las Acacias offers a tender, taciturn picture of a relationship blossoming between a gruff lorry driver and the mother and baby who hitch a lift with him on the highway from Paraguay to Buenos Aires. Elsewhere, Anna Paquin excels in Margaret, the many-years-in-the-making feature from Kenneth (You Can Count on Me) Lonergan.

Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
Crime watch: Cara Delevingne and Daniel Brühl in ‘The Face of an Angel’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
music Malik left the Asian leg of the band's world tour after being signed off with stress last week
Author J.K. Rowling attends photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 27, 2012 in London, England.
peopleNot the first time the author has defended Dumbledore's sexuality
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss