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A Precocious Boy Stages Life’s ‘Mysteries’

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
August 4, 2011

All the world’s a miniature stage to Pedro, the 19th-century Portuguese schoolboy who’s just learned he’s not an orphan. After the teenager (João Luis Arrais) is introduced to the mother he doesn’t remember, she gives him a toy proscenium, which he uses to stage moments from his life. And, as Pedro will gradually learn, his biography is quite the theater piece.

An existential quest — or quests — in the guise of a costume drama, Mysteries of Lisbon was adapted from an epic novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, a prolific Portuguese writer whose work is mostly unavailable in English. Made by Franco-Chilean director Raúl Ruiz as a TV miniseries, it’s been cut to four-and-half hours for theatrical release. That might seem too long for Pedro’s tale, but the boy’s story is just the first of many interlocking narratives in this “diary of suffering.”

For all its historical trappings, Mysteries of Lisbon functions like a hypertext document. Although it’s not interactive — Ruiz determines how the story will proceed — the movie does fork in unexpected directions. One character’s storyline branches to another, and nearly all the major figures have secret histories and assumed identities.

Pedro, for example, is originally known as João. He lives in a boarding school under the protection of Father Dinis (Adriano Luz). Dinis has long nurtured the boy, whose classmates call him a “bastard.” (Technically, they’re correct.) The priest also enables João/Pedro’s touching (but temporary) reunion with his mother (Maria João Bastos), and his acquaintance with the facts of his own life.

Eventually, Pedro enters a room full of talismans from Dinis’ previous existences, including a skull and a uniform. Lost love and a lost war — a Napoleonic one — are just part of the priest’s backstory. Serving as the agent of the god-like storytellers, Dinis also carries messages, reveals intrigues and hears (unofficial) confessions.

Other characters arrive, depart and arrive again, moving through the story as circuitously as Ruiz’s gliding camera. These include an elderly monk whose previous existence gave him much to repent, and a Portuguese thug who reenters as a Brazilian aristocrat. The ease with which rogues join either the clergy or the nobility is one of the tale’s ironic jests. (Another is the way that utterly transformed individuals recognize their equally altered old cronies.)

The film abandons Pedro, who’s literally sent away from the story, only to reintroduce him as a young man (now played by Afonso Pimentel). The roundabout tale circles toward a poignant conclusion when Pedro meets the man who callously set his life’s course.

Ruiz, whose best-known films include his 1999 adaptation of Proust’s Time Regained, coolly roams the ambiguous territories between tragedy and soap opera, and between the traditional and the modern. This movie includes such telenovela ingredients as forbidden loves and threatened infants — yes, more than one — spirited to safety just in time. Yet it also toys with the very idea of narrative, framing shots through windows or glass tables to emphasize the tale’s artifice.

Mysteries of Lisbon is presented, after all, as a series of stories told, written or dictated by its major characters. They may be no more trustworthy than Ruiz, Castelo Branco or screenwriter Carlos Saboga. It’s telling that the movie, after reaching a tidy payoff, takes one last spin into an epilogue that questions the actuality of almost everything that’s come before. (Recommended) [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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