Shiny Shelf

LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: Mistérios de Lisboa (Mysteries of Lisbon)

By Jim Smith on 03 November 2010

‘Mysteries of Lisbon’ is a sprawling, gorgeous adaptation of a nineteenth century novel by Camilo Castelo Branco. Branco (1825-90) was an astonishingly prolific Portuguese novelist and journalist who largely wrote for periodicals. Branco’s work is revered in Portugal, but much of it remains untranslated into English to this day, including the vast, episodic, serialised novel on which this film is based.

Well, I say ‘film’, but in fact this was – like ‘The Trip’, ‘Carlos’ and several other items on show at the London Film Festival this year – actually made for television.  The cinematic version is 272 minutes cut out of a six hour television series and shown in two roughly equal chunks split by an intermission. Why the festival authorities shy away from admitting that such things are made for television first and foremost is anyone’s guess. It’s probably related to the still prevalent, weird, indefensible notion that cinema is an art form and television isn’t. (I’ve heard this given more than once as an explanation as to why ‘Das Boot’ into really a TV series. Which, of course, it is.)

The episodic nature of both the book and the TV series mean that the cinema version doesn’t drag despite its gargantuan length. What starts off as seemingly a Dickensian story of a poor orphan in an institution quickly becomes a series of overlapping flashbacks as we uncover the secret histories of almost every major speaking character. This means that there are numerous ‘points of renewal’ as the story of an unhappily married Countess comes to an end and we move onto the secret parentage of a wily Priest.

There are other similarities to Dickens in the narrative; orphan children, cold institutions, a fear of poverty, desperate attempts at social mobility, unhappy marriages and sudden deaths.   Just as recent years demonstrated how much more suited to television rather than theatrical adaptation Dickens’ ‘Little Dorrit’ is, it’s incredibly hard to imagine the interlocking structure of ‘Mysteries of Lisbon’ working, never mind breathing as it does here, forced into an accessible theatrical length. This is one of those narratives which, like ‘Bleak House’ or ‘The Canterbury Tales’ seems to contain almost all human life within its vast, but still brimming confines.

The series’ director, Chilean filmmaker Raoul Ruiz, has previously demonstrated magic realist tendencies mesh neatly with what are, by all accounts, Branco’s own. Some of what he achieves here is quite remarkable. The piece consists almost entirely of very long takes, many shot with a steadicam and almost all in mid shot. A large number of scenes contain very few cuts. Many contain none whatsoever. Many hugely complex scenes were cleared staged whole. Some go on for eight or nine minutes and involve a dozen performers. The actors perform amazingly under these conditions, which are more reminiscent of the theatre or the way British television was made thirty years ago than the assumed process of contemporary film and television production. (Where it’s all, in case you live in a box, made in tiny little bits and then stuck together later.)

The backgrounds of these huge scenes are often sumptuous, with extras dodging in and out of these long takes in a way that must have been painstakingly co-ordinated. Which the piece shot entirely on real locations there’s an incredible feeling of verisimilitude. ‘Mysteries of Lisbon’ is hugely immersive. We feel like we’re peering into a real world and that every character flitting through the back of shot has their own life and backstory. There’s an incredibly richness here and the Concha de Plata al Mejor  the director picked up at the San Sebastian Film Festival is entirely deserve and it’s frankly astonishing that this piece was made for a mere 2 million euros and in only fourteen weeks, during which its director also underwent major surgery.

There is already talk of a sequel (well, second series) based on more of Branco’s writing.  I earnestly hope that both it and the proposed DVD release of the six hour version happen. This is a series that I already want to revisit. ‘Mysteries of Lisbon’ is Shiny Shelf’s pick of the London Film Festival 2010. It’s also actually a TV show. There’s probably a lesson there, if you’re looking for one.

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