Like many of today’s historical films, Mysteries of Lisbon is long (very long). Before investing four and a half hours in a movie, it might be an idea to read a review or two. After I invested my four and a half hours, ideas for reviews kept invading my head. But there are so many things to talk about, the director’s style, the actors, the camera work that one observer called “unobtrusive”, the level of history, it was hard to settle on something.
Sure, I could write a PhD thesis, researching the director’s life and speculating how that influenced the production, but I’m not interested in that. Instead, I’ll answer the two questions I think every reviewer should answer. Did I like the movie? And, how do my readers know if they’ll like it?
Mysteries of Lisbon covers one of the most interesting periods of Portuguese history, at least one most covered by British and French historians. The mysteries take place from the time of first Marquis of Pombal to the Liberal Wars. We see Pombal’s time from the point of view of the nobility, the French revolution from the point of view of a Portuguese recruit in Napoleon’s army, and the Liberal Wars from the point of view of a peasant boy who witnesses an execution.
But, Mysteries of Lisbon isn’t military history. Most of the fighting happens off screen. We see what the characters see, and only enough of that to move the story forward. At four and a half hours, there is no time for those things which elevate a film’s rating beyond PG. The script is succinct, and controlled.
So, why then is it so long? Well, it started out as a TV miniseries, and it can be watched that way. The first part (before the intermission) and the second are almost like separate movies, with smaller, almost unrelated stories, embedded in each half.
There is a line or two in English, about a dozen lines of dialogue in Italian, at least a half hour in French, and the rest is Portuguese. The theme of this film is romance, but not the romance of any one character.
The main character is a boy. He discovers his own life, the secrets behind his own heritage, and why he has no surname, or does he? In the second part, other characters have their own secret histories revealed.
The ending, I can say, will disappoint many people. The boy is the main character for most of the film, but the story is about everyone, his mother, the priest who looks after him, the other priest who sees the boy’s mother’s abusive husband die… Yes, it is almost like a soap opera.
So, why is the ending so disappointing?
The ending is at once unhappy and one of those twists which negates the whole story coming up to it. Much in the same way that The Usual Suspects negates the rest of the story in its ending.
The film, a work of fiction, worries less about historical accuracy than Gods and Generals, but it feels more authentic in costume and personality. If you like European history, you might like Mysteries of Lisbon despite its flawed story. The images capture the era, and the photography is beautiful. The acting was great, the story beats were interesting, the characterization was strong. There were subtle techniques that could be used effectively by any filmmaker: if you can follow subtitles, action, the storyline, and the way the camera helps tell the story at once for so long, you’ll learn a lot.
But this movie is not for everybody. I once watched two three hour movies back to back in the cinema, I think it was Heat and Casino, and I wasn’t as exhausted as I was at the end of this one. Mysteries of Lisbon is neither a history lesson nor a feel good romance, but an explosion of passion and emotion, a long, sad story with a few laughs thrown in. (And yes, the audience did laugh, and a few even clapped at the end.)
Imagine a Fado song that lasted four and a half hours, that was written by someone who hardly knew anything about Fado, but seemed to like something about the culture that produced it. Mysteries of Lisbon is like that Fado song written by an Chilean based in France. I enjoyed watching it, but like Fado, it may be too sad (or too nostalgic) for some people.