Mysteries of Lisbon

Mysteries of Lisbon

Alberto de Magalhaes (Ricardo Pereira) and Elisa de Montfort (Clotilde Hesme) in MYSTERIES OF LISBON, a film directed by Raul Ruiz. Picture courtesy Music Box Films. All rights reserved.

Mysteries of Lisbon (2010/2011)

Also Known As: Misterios de Lisboa

Opened: 08/05/2011 Limited

IFC Center08/05/2011 - 08/11/20117 days
The Landmark08/12/2011 - 08/18/20117 days
Cinema Village...09/02/2011 - 09/22/201121 days
Music Box Thea...09/16/2011 - 09/22/20117 days

Trailer: Click for trailer

Websites: Home

Genre: Portuguese Drama (In Portuguese and French w/English Subtitles)

Rated: Unrated


Mysteries of Lisbon plunges us into a veritable whirlwind of adventures and escapades, coincidences and revelations, sentiments and violent passions, vengeance and love affairs, all wrapped in a rhapsodic voyage that takes us from Portugal, France, Italy, and as far as Brazil. In this Lisbon of intrigue and hidden identities, we encounter a series of characters all somewhat linked to the destiny of Pedro da Silva, an orphan in a boarding school. Father Dinis, a descendent of the aristocratic libertines, later becomes a hero who defends justice; a countess maddened by her jealousy and set on vengeance and a prosperous businessman who mysteriously made his fortune as a bloodthirsty pirate. These and many more characters all cross in a story set in the 19th century while searching for the true identity of our main character.

Director's Statement

The American professor David Bordwell considered that all narrative strategies that can be applied to modern films are based on a certain notion of verisimilitude (or narrative evidence).

Thanks to them, the most unbridled fictions are acceptable and accepted. And this very verisimilitude, it is said, is averse to any straying from a guiding line (what is commonly called the action's guiding arrow), with its variations in intensity and its turbulent twists and turns.

This theory, which depends on a certain number of rules often abusively attributed to Aristotle, finally became what purists hastened to naively call "Bordwell's paradigm"--the whole of narrative strategies that stem from impulse, from the presumption of verisimilitude.

What is called "modern drama" or "bourgeois drama," or even "the Ibsen Shaw postulate" has given rise to this superstition. In modern drama, structure and construction dominate, even beyond the poetic incoherence or the irrelevant facts it supposes. The author is an architect who builds shelters for fictions, various events which, and only because they are protected from the rain of the improbable, become credible and relevant.

Each of these fictions, of these mobile structures, is guided by a narrative arrow. But beware, only one per fiction: William Tell is a well-told story because only one arrow cuts in two only one apple, but the battle of Azincourt is not because Robin Hood and his people's swarm of arrows does not enable one to read the time on the narrative clock, veiled as it is by clouds of arrows, each guided by its independent little intrigue. "Clouds and not clocks" would say Karl Popper.

In modern drama, the proliferation of truncated facts is not acceptable because it makes us stray from the notion of causality which is inherent to that of verisimilitude, and without which there would be no story.

Very well.

But what happens if we apply these sacrosanct rules to the film adaptation of the novellas that constitute Mysteries of Lisbon? From the hundred or so characters that find and lose each other in Castelo Branco's Lisbon, not a single one of them is capable of explaining the why of his actions; actions that are almost imperceptible, with impalpable consequences and an indecipherable future.

In fact an Islamic parable comes to my mind. Ali said to his wife:

-If it doesn't rain tomorrow, I will go work in the fields; if it rains, I will stay at home.

And his wife responded to him:

- You forgot to add "God willing."

- What for? Only God can decide if it will rain or if it won't rain.

The following day, it does not rain. Ali goes out into the fields and bandits catch him. Then the sultan's troupes arrest the bandits and Ali along with them. They are sent to the gallows. But the gallows are attacked by Christian ships. Ali is made a prisoner and reduced to slavery. Many other things happen. Ten years go by. Ali returns home. He knocks on his door. His wife asks:

-Who is it?

-I am Ali, your husband...God willing.

But one never knows what God wants, would say Camilo.

Castelo Branco's God, his fatum, is capricious -- he likes mysteries and enigmas. He triggers events that are alien to any kind of logic. Twists and turns fall from the sky, like meteorites.

Let us see: Pedro da Silva is an orphan, taken in and protected by Father Dinis. He convinces himself (and us along with him) that his current status is only transitory and that a grand future awaits him. And so it will be (or almost).

One day his mother appears, the Countess of Santa Barbara.

We learn that she lives like a prisoner in her terrible husband's palace. Up until then, we are in the midst of a typically 19th century melodramatic saga. But it so happens that soon enough, the mean husband reveals himself to be not so bad (he is only almost mean!), recognizes his faults and dies a good Christian, having received the forgiveness of his victims. Maybe one day he will even be sanctified.

And Pedro renews with solitude. His mother joins a convent, in quest for peace. She does find it in fact (or almost).

Let us see further still: the bandit Knife-Eater, an occasional assassin, uses the money given to him by Father Dinis in exchange for saving the newborn Pedro to become a rich capitalist. In any case, he does not repent for his crimes any more than he ceases to act poorly. And yet, Castelo Branco's "deus ex machina" does not punish him. The monstrous Anacleta, after having committed numerous wrongdoings, transforms herself into a saint and performs miracles. As for Father Dinis, he suddenly abandons the ministry to leave for the Orient in order to search for enlightenment. The marquis of Montezelos himself, who commandeered the death of his grandson, amongst other infamies, does not seem to be bothered by the police, nor by his conscience.

One could thus multiply the examples from this sprawling fiction. As with their illustrious predecessors (The Mysteries of Paris, Nobody's Boy, The Two Orphans), the characters of Mysteries of Lisbon are victims, the perfect examples of the vertiginous social mobility of the romantic century which invented the aesthetics of suicide and authors' rights, the cult of cemeteries and of ruins, the revolution of freethinking, the cult of the Middle Ages and the industrial age. And as with them, the Mysteries of Lisbon's intrigues enter and leave the narrative system that Camilo proposes, get entangled in their own maze, relating improbable facts that you end up doubting. The storm of misadventures, which the three volumes is made of, is never followed by a ray of light.

Were we to adorn the dress of an academic, of a Camilo specialist, we could suggest that the characters that form the social fabric of Mysteries of Lisbon go through three stages: birth, betrayal and redemption.

Dom Alvaro of Albuquerque, an unscrupulous and cynical libertine, falls victim to an irrepressible passion for the wife of his friend and political ally. He betrays him. He runs away with her and ends up involuntarily causing her death. To atone for this betrayal, he hesitates between suicide and the convent. He chooses the convent.

Birth, betrayal, redemption.

Indeed. But does this explain the jubilatory tingling triggered by the accumulation of stories that are in turn disparate, truncated, labyrinthine and baroque?

No one escapes his destiny, said the ancient Germans. And Camilo's fictions confirm this, but it is destiny itself that eludes us. The fatum.

"As a with will-o'-the-wisps

So it goes with love:

You run from it and it runs for you

You search for it and it flees from you."

A popular novelist named Keeler who, like Camilo, wrote a mile a minute, came up with the idea, almost a hundred years ago, of applying the rules or laws of planar geometry to middle-of-the-road fictions. Therein followed an impressive number of stories in which the characters seemed to follow pre-established lines of conduct, orchestrating passions on demand (because they were geometrical).

Camilo, on the contrary, justifies the twists and turns in his stories by releasing his characters on parole (as one would say in judicial jargon)-- a freedom, which the characters invariably use to commit betrayals.

The universe of his fiction reminds me of the ship crew in Manuscript Found in a Bottle, Edgar Poe's short story. The ship sinks, engulfed by a gigantic eddy and the crew members, with dark gazes and menacing manners, live out this final and vertiginous voyage with a melancholic indulgence which is not exempt from humor, nor of sarcasm.

"Planar geometry" gave Keeler's fiction the necessary verisimilitude to delude the reader. On the contrary, Camilo's stories irresistibly drag us into the whirlwind that engulfs his characters. They are as implausible as a surrealist dream.

Eighteenth and nineteenth century psychiatrists distinguished two types of extreme behaviors in the insane: enthusiasm and melancholia. Camilo, on the other hand, confuses them, inviting us to travel in a world of joyful misfortunes and painful triumphs. Meaning that his "sebastianism" transforms disarray and disasters into epiphanies, and triumphant glory into a devastating torment, a communal grave and ruins.

And it is this "paradox of repulsion" (according to the term used by Baltasar Gracian to designate rhetorical figures of the type "The only thing that is keeping me alive is the hope of death"), this melancholic fervor which explains, it seems to me, the fascination which is triggered in the reader, and especially in the filmmaker that I am, by Camilo's fictions. They spill over; they exceed the limits established by related events by awakening other latent fictions that were sleeping in the shadow of the romantic fact. And the world of the "unbelievable but true" adventures, of the twists and turns that are particular to Mysteries of Paris, give way to the "real because unbelievable" of the Mysteries of Lisbon.

This new form of narrative evidence, or energy, had not been planned by neither Bordwell, nor Keeler, nor Samuel Goldwyn, nor George Bush. And yet, many scientists are applying themselves to demonstrate that this theory is so aberrant that it can only be true (see Haldane).

"Incredible but true." But let us never forget that Camilo is Portuguese.

Those who, like me, like the Lusitanian people, do not like them because they believe that everything is grand in Portugal, but because they prefer their faults to their qualities.

Qualities: hard working people, spend thriftily, discretion.

Faults: sadness (or tristitia), eighth capital sin (according to Cassian in his Institutions), fatalist evanescence.

Those who, like me, appreciate pleasantries know that they don't all strive for laughter.

British ones trigger a feeling of anguish when facing the absurd.

Chinese ones evoke philosophical reflection and perplexity.

Those from my land (Chile) give rise to panic attacks (after the name of the god Pan).

Portuguese pleasantries call for sigh, they are a sort of sublimation of sadness. One of them says that all the computers in the world have a memory, except the Portuguese ones, which only have vague reminiscences.

Let us summarize. I close the third volume of Mysteries of Lisbon and I attempt to recall one of the tales that was superimposed in the three volumes and in the Black Book. And I will only be able to attain vague reminiscences (doesn't one of the numerous definitions of the word saudade refer to the nostalgia for something which never occurred?)

It is exactly so when I try to summon the characters and the twists and turns of Mysteries in my memory. I am only able to find fragments of ghost stories that were never written, but which float in an uncertain space where are inscribed, it is said, never related events, although very present in the beyond of words committed to paper--of implicit tales, in other words. Not transcribed, but almost.

Let us summarize once more.

Towards the late fifties, when I began to take interest in theatre and film, in Chile, the rare few who aspired to become playwrights or, rarer still, filmmakers, had to be well versed in what was called the dramatic construction technique. In just a few weeks, trainers who came from the north would transmit to us simple and effective techniques that helped script intrigues that were likely to interest everyone. The story begins, they would tell us, when the character you connect with wants something and battles to obtain it (William Tell wanting to split the apple which his son has on his head without touching a single one of his hairs). There has to be risks, uncertainties, twists and turns subjected to the trajectory of the arrow which the hero will fire (which represents the narrative arrow that guides the whole intrigue).

There is a crisis, a climax and a denouement.

And afterwards, bliss or tragedy ensues.

For the teenagers that we were, there was no way of escaping the diktats of the American narrative system. Later, Brecht's epic theatre attempted a critique (of a slightly nebulous dogmatism), of what is referred to as bourgeois drama, without much success.

Epic theatre left as it had arrived, without changing much. The advent of modern American drama, on the other hand, marked a definitive break. For my part, neither epic nor modern, I chose to seek refuge in the dramaturgy of dreams.

But, what about this "Everyman"? This average individual, the ordinary man, the obscure taxpayer for who were destined the stories we were going to tell?

Of course there were the Mexican melodramas, the telenovelas, the radio broadcast of the afternoon, of the evening or of before breakfast.

What stories were told in these popular dramas?

Nothing in particular and everything in general (being happy, finding a great love, reaching posterity, etc).

Well, to these uneducated people, avid for the kind of drama created by pure misfortune, it mattered little if Gary Cooper succeeded in becoming Senator or if Robert Taylor was Governor of the Bahamas. They preferred chance, misfortune, the injustice of humiliations, the surprise of strokes of luck, in short, life itself. Serials. For our trainers, the serial belonged to the past; it was third-rate art, intended for an uneducated people with notorious bad taste.

No one doubted this.

Until someone, from the back of some tavern, composed a manifesto, a sort of "poetic Art" which sadly claimed bad taste as the principle of a new art form.

The Anglo-Saxon drama tolerated neither avatars, nor accidents; it loathed misfortune and the lottery. The art form being promoted by this manifesto (which obviously referred to Gramsci, Nobody is perfect) welcomed with enthusiasm narrative vagaries, arbitrary narrative breaks, irresolvable enigmas, heartaches, and seeing the fact that puppeteers have a soul (because, ladies and gentlemen, puppets do indeed have a soul, whereas Hedda Gabler, Saint Ignatius of Loyola or the President of Honduras don't have one).

The manifesto ended with the cry "Death to Borges, long live Corin Tellado?!"**

Years went by.

And when Paulo Branco asked me to direct Mysteries of Lisbon, I understood that I had in fact been waiting for this kind of offer for years (for an eternity, as Vargas Vila and Nene Cascallar would say in unison).

This avalanche, this cataract of humiliations, of unexpected crimes and disasters, this river of painful loves and wounded hopes which doused the fertile valley of tears inhabited by Camilo's characters, I had known them forever.

I felt I had the strength to cover this territory, to navigate through it with the fervor of a volunteer worker saving the victims of an umpteenth flood in India.

The era of the modern drama, in which each character knows what he wants and why he wants it, no longer is. This genre has become completely obsolete, out of use, unreal. The logic of whatever the cost effects and causes that is specific to modern drama, has ceded the way to the paranoid turbulences of the world of globalization. J.H. Lawson would tell us: a story begins when someone desires something. But who has the courage to want something without dreading its necessarily hazardous consequences?

Who wants absurd wars that leave the world without a truce? Who wants natural disasters that trigger global warming (foreseen by Camilo in case you didn't know)? Who wants to love?

We live, period, as the Los de Aragon song says:

"Since we are alive, we must live."

When I read Carlos Saboga's adaptation for the first time, which struck me as excellent, I let myself be swayed by the narration, that's all. During the second reading, my attention focused on the sort of peace, the tranquility that enveloped the painful events suggested and illustrated by the story. It was like walking through a garden. In his novel The Cathedral, Joris-Karl Huysmans evokes an allegorical (but real) garden in which each plant, each tree, each flower represents either moral values or sins. This is how I imagined the film he wanted to make. Like Antonio de Torquemada's The Garden of Curious Flowers, like the Garden of Eden described by Saint Brendan when he returned from the beyond, like the garden in Danto's Inferno in which each flower, each plant, is a punished suicide.

Linne, the father of botany, believed that God punished each bad action with Dadaistic punishments: someone kicks a cat and then years later he sees his dear and beloved wife fall from a balcony and die under his eyes (see "The Divine Nemesis").

While I was shooting Mysteries of Lisbon, I often thought about Linne-- a garden is a battlefield. Any flower is monstrous. In slow motion, any garden is Shakespearian.

And if someone were to ask me to summarize my position with regards to Mysteries of Lisbon the film, I would say that it was a gardener's.

"A gardener of love

Waters a rose and then leaves.

Another picks it and enjoys it.

To whom of the two does it belong?"

-- Raul Ruiz, Director