A masterly tale about lives and stories and the art of their telling, “Mysteries of Lisbon” is also an elegiac meditation on love lost and rediscovered through misted memory. Directed by the Chilean filmmaker Raúl Ruiz and set mainly in Portugal, with detours to other European corners, it is a period picture based on a work by the prolific Camilo Castelo Branco (1825-90), who was born in Lisbon, illegitimate and orphaned, and flirted with the priesthood before finding his calling in writing, running off with a married woman, landing in prison and finally committing suicide.

The story opens and closes with a voice-over belonging to a man you come to know as Pedro da Silva, but initially know as a 14-year-old called “just João” (played as a teenager by João Luis Arrais and as an adult by Afonso Pimentel). Believing himself an orphan, he lives in a boarding school run by the kind, bluntly spoken Father Dinis (Adriano Luz), whose cassock and tender manner obscure an adventurous, thorny past.       

That history comes to light over the course of the movie and through a great many melodramatic incidents involving desperate women, dastardly men and overheated emotions that at times run perilously, if self-consciously, close to soap operatic parody.

“Mysteries of Lisbon,” stretches across at least three generations. As its title suggests, it is a mystery involving João, but one that opens and keeps opening, life after life, to embrace the near-entirety of his world. Soon after he first appears, João discovers that he’s the son of a countess, Ângela de Lima (Maria João Bastos), who visits him one night after he’s injured. She brings him a theater diorama as a gift, a miniature that he carries with him and that emerges as a crucial storytelling device. Mostly, though, she almost magically grants his wish, becoming the mother he longed for and filling in the first blank in a puzzle that eventually will also be solved with the help of Father Dinis; João’s father, Don Pedro (João Baptista); a scar-faced pirate, Alberto (the excellent Ricardo Pereira); and others.       

Directed by Raúl Ruiz; written by Carlos Saboga, based on the novel by Camilo Castelo Branco; director of photography, André Szankowski; edited by Valéria Sarmiento and Carlos Madaleno; music by Jorge Arriagada and Luis Freitas Branco; art direction by Isabel Branco; produced by Paulo Branco; released by Music Box Films. In Portuguese, French and English, with English subtitles. Running time: 4 hours 17 minutes. This film is not rated.       

WITH: Adriano Luz (Father Dinis), Maria João Bastos (Ângela de Lima), Ricardo Pereira (Alberto de Magalhães), Afonso Pimentel (Pedro da Silva), João Luis Arrais (the young Pedro da Silva), Clotilde Hesme (Elisa de Montfort), João Baptista (D. Pedro da Silva), Léa Seydoux (Blanche de Montfort), Melvil Poupaud (Col. Ernest Lacroze), Malik Zidi (Viscount of Armagnac) and São José Correia (Anacleta dos Remédios).

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