Mysteries of Lisbon seems quite at home to fans of a mash up of Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones.
The search for one's meaning in life is never an easy one. Continuous search, countless stories learned and hearts both mended and broken seem to be human nature at this point for a bastard child known only as Joao (Joao Arrais). Having never known his parents, Joao is perplexed as to, not only where his parents went, but why exactly he was left in the first place. It isn't until Joao is recovering from a school fight when Angela de Lima (Maria Joao Bastros) visits and calls him "son". Unable to escape the idea of unfolding his past, Joao makes it his mission to find his true family name. Of course, it's never as easy as that.
Mysteries of Lisbon is the latest feature by director Raoul Ruiz, who picked up the rights by Portuguese author Camilo Castelo Branco. Ruiz knows how to control the camera and focus on the more dramatic scenarios, yet his execution is ultimately unable to save a meandering plot. The story of orphaned Joao is an interesting one, but it's not always the focus of the story. Yes, everything seems to piece back to him, but the majority of the just over 4 hour film is spent unraveling the stories of Joao's mother, father and numerous aquaintances he has met throughout his life. The execution of these stories is done well, but the interest of its' audience is easily lost as the film seems to take quite a while to get where it wants to. I have no issue with extended length in films, but 4 and a half hours seems to be pushing it. Especially when the film takes its' time unraveling.
Despite the dull pacing, the stories in Mysteries of Lisbon are fairly intriguing: Joao's father (Joao Baptista) falling in love with a wealthy noblewoman while only having pennies to his name. Joao's mother feeling suffocated inside a heartless and meaningless marriage, all the while enjoying the attention of a local poor man. We even get a look into the story of a man hired to murder Joao soon after his birth. There's no doubt that Camilo and Raoul share the same passion for layering complex, yet rewarding stories. Romance, heartbreak and mystery continue forward throughout Lisbon's runtime and are matched well enough with the performances of each major character. It's easy to tell how professional each actor is, regardless of the size of their character. The same talent and dedication can be found in both the major character on screen and a soup-delivering nun in the background. The wonder found in the eyes of Joao Arrais fit perfectly on the lost face of our orphaned hero. Mysteries of Lisbon's story may flounder over time, but the acting behind it almost makes the film seem worth the dull pace. Almost.
While it makes a great attempt to recover from a rather dull middle half, Mysteries of Lisbon is a flawed yet beautiful look into what makes a boy become man and what it takes to get there. Ruiz does a well enough job piecing these interesting stories, even if it is throughout 4 hours of runtime. Next time Ruiz, let's aim for a mini-series.