Ricardo Pereira and Clotilde Hesme in "Mysteries of Lisbon." (Music Box Films )
Based on a 19th-century novel that's usually characterized as sprawling, "Mysteries of Lisbon" is a hothouse melodrama seen through a cool, discerning eye.
Director Rául Ruiz has called it one of his most theoretical films, but this multicourse (41/2 -hour) feast is no self-conscious demonstration of molecular gastronomy. The storytelling is straightforward, with a classical sheen, even as mischief and hallucination puncture the serene surface.
The running time should not be cause for dismay; with 100-plus films to his credit, Ruiz is nothing if not a master of tone and pacing as he moves his players through the drawing rooms, hotels, convents and monasteries of Western Europe and, briefly, Brazil, unwrapping stories within stories within stories.
At the center of the ever-expanding lacework — until the center shifts, as it will several times, and back again — is an orphaned teen who introduces the saga as a "diary of suffering." Like many of the characters, João is not what he at first appears. He learns he's really Pedro, the product of a star-crossed love between two members of the nobility, both second-born and, therefore, destined for misfortune rather than inheritance.
Pedro's inheritance is a particularly intense strain of saudade, that Portuguese mode of longing; when his countess mother (Maria João Bastos) suffers, she does it exquisitely.
Her ally, and Pedro's, is the priest who has housed and schooled him: Father Dinis, who might be called the mystery of "Mysteries." A keeper of secrets he claims he'd rather not know, he's a protector with the manipulative focus of Iago.
Adriano Luz brings delectable inscrutability to the role, conveying the quiet authority of a man of God and the plain-talking roughness of a thief. Then again, in one of his past incarnations, the good father might very well have been a thief, among other things.
But multiple selves are elemental to the world Ruiz has brought to life. On that front, Father Dinis is matched by the dashing nouveau riche Alberto, who plays by no one's rules. Ricardo Pereira is magnetic as the accomplished but overcompensating ladies' man, filling his Xanadu with imports, including an exotic bird, like a Lusitanian Charles Foster Kane.
Among the shadow-draped story's gypsies, tramps and aristocrats, destiny is least oppressive for those who shape-shift and name-change, who refuse to settle for the identity dictated by their birth. And that's no surprise from a protean artist like Ruiz.
Spinning out from Pedro (played, as a pining adult, by Afonso Pimentel), the degrees of separation expand and contract as the story crisscrosses the Continent and the decades. Whether among officers of the French Revolution or exiled lovers in Venice, whether zeroing in on murderous fathers, belching bandits or behind-the-scenes benefactors, the film moves with its own logic, dreamlike and unshakable.
Those who appear irredeemable — some of them, anyway — turn sympathetic as the perspective changes.
Through every twist of the kaleidoscope, the delight in storytelling is primary. The boy Pedro peers into a diorama of his life at its most confusing and finds beauty, if no answers. Ruiz is as uninterested in solutions as he is in hitting Hollywood-style beats.
He constructs a memory palace from an endlessly unfolding paper fortuneteller, choreographing his troupe of note-carrying go-betweens, eavesdropping servants, lovers bent on revenge (Clotilde Hesme, commanding) and those locked in unhappiness (Léa Seydoux).
Screenwriter Carlos Saboga's adaptation of the 1854 novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, alive with language that's sharp and poetic, occupies a place somewhere between heaving bosoms and clinical detachment. But "Mysteries" never undercuts its soap opera essence with irony; it celebrates every jealous impulse and weird duel. (The source material was serialized, and the film began as a series for Portuguese television.)
Essential to the film's dark elegance is the plaintive score, a mix of compositions old and new, and the assured camera of first-timer André Szankowski — circling, prowling, standing back in judgment, so unlike the blindfolded boys who, in one of Ruiz's many sly touches, stumble through the background of a scene.