On the Long and Winding Road of Raul Ruiz’s Epic Mysteries of Lisbon


Say what you will about 19th-century literature—they had stories in those days (and stories within stories). None of the 260 books authored by Camilo Castelo Branco (1825–1890) is available in English, but this madly prolific Portuguese novelist provided the material for two imposing movie epics: Manoel de Oliveira’s 1979 breakthrough Doomed Love and now Raul Ruiz’s scarcely less remarkable and equally long Mysteries of Lisbon, shown at last year’s New York Film Festival and opening this week at Lincoln Center’s new Munroe Film Center.

Convoluted does not begin to describe this four-and-a-half-hour movie that, given the filmmaker’s straightforward if subtly distanced embrace of Branco’s sprawling three-volume novel, might be called Mysteries of Mysteries of Lisbon. A sort of ethnographic time-traveler, Ruiz dramatizes every outrageous plot twist with serene equanimity—treating the hopelessly old-fashioned as the new avant-garde. The tale of the illegitimate “orphan” Pedro’s search for his origins is embedded in a thicket of concealed identities, unexpected confessions, and madly proliferating nested narratives. Boasting of “coincidences so great no novelist would invent them,” the story advances as it retreats; the movie’s most often repeated line is “I’ll explain later!”

Adapted from a six-part miniseries (or soap opera) produced by longtime Oliveira associate Paulo Branco for Portuguese TV, Mysteries of Lisbon is a fitting companion to Ruiz’s triumphant 1999 adaptation of the thought-unfilmable Time Regained, a movie that, rather than approximate Proust’s prose, addressed his modernist use of simultaneous multiple perspectives. As Time Regained was a 20th-century movie about a 20th-century novel, Mysteries of Lisbon is a 21st-century adaptation of a 19th-century chronicle. Placing the very notion of narrative between quotation marks, it’s at once matter-of-fact and outlandish, anachronistic and contemporary, a movie of fluid long takes and static compositions in which all of the action might be set within the paper theater given to the young hero by the aristocratic woman who, 20 minutes into the movie, turns out to be his mother and then …

Leisurely and digressive, this generally exhilarating saga (“a storm of misadventures” per Ruiz) variously suggests Victor Hugo, Stendhal, and (thanks in part to the unnatural, emphatic yet uninflected, acting) Mexican telenovelas. The score is richly romantic; the period locations are impeccable. Secondary characters come unexpectedly to the fore as the past perpetually introduces itself into the present. War breaks out—20 years before the story opens. (Like just about everything in early 19th-century European intellectual history, every event can be traced back to the historical rupture of the French Revolution.)

Mysteries of Lisbon has no shortage of incidental absurdism, although the suggestion that human existence is an enigmatic divine plan carried out by priests and penitents is a reminder that literary surrealism was largely the invention of lapsed Catholics. Slightly less self-effacing than God, Ruiz signals his own presence (if not necessarily his intentions) with some intermittently eccentric camera placement and strategic mirror reflections, repeated scenes of servants spying or eavesdropping on the affairs of the oblivious aristos who employ them, and occasional bouts of hysterical, unmotivated laughter. The ability of characters to recognize each other after lifetime-long separations is a source of humor as well as mystery: “The winding roads we had to travel, my son, to meet again!”

The more Pedro learns of his past, the more confused and morbidly alienated he becomes. Ultimately, Mysteries cuts its own Gordian knot to wrap with a magnificent, looping closer—a blaze of white light that metaphorically conflates the end of literature, theater, and cinema. The nothingness is Olympian. A child is born, a man dies (still living in that child’s imagination), and the movie feels majestically disinterested—once set in motion, it hardly cares if you watch.

The subject of Magic Trip is the LSD-powered, cross-country road movie orchestrated by novelist Ken Kesey in the summer of ’64. More than a footnote but less than a chapter in American cultural history, the voyage taken by a psychedelic, Day-Glo-painted school bus filled with Kesey’s Merry Prankster pals and driven by Beat Generation ego-ideal Neal Cassady was part madcap social experiment and part improvised reality show—a template for the antic hippie-ism that would enliven the remainder of the decade.

Kesey’s trip provided the basis for Tom Wolfe’s nonfiction novel The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and was also documented, after a fashion, by the participants, proponents of the notion that life was a movie in which everyone (or at least each of them) was a star. Kesey (a frustrated Hollywood actor, according to his friend and fellow novelist Robert Stone) had great hopes for the movie created, per Wolfe, “under conditions of total spontaneity barreling through the heartlands of America, recording all now, in the moment.” Defying intelligible montage, excerpts from this footage have surfaced several times over the decades; now the prolific Alex Gibney (Enron, Client 9), working with editor Alison Ellwood, has taken the material—digitally improved and at times painstakingly near-synchronized to the original sound—as the basis for an oral history. Surviving Pranksters are interviewed; Kesey is heard reminiscing with Terry Gross.

Magic Trip is somewhat smugly overpackaged in its assumption that Kesey invented the ’60s although, as presaged by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the writer mightily contributed to the counterculture’s libertarian ideology (“doing your own thing” seems to be his coinage). Wearing red, white, and blue bunting (several years in advance of Abbie Hoffman), the Pranksters confounded local mores and baffled cops from Arizona to New Jersey; roughly coinciding with the 1964 presidential campaign, their antics illustrated Barry Goldwater’s assertion that “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.”

As filmed, the regressive acting out suggests an artless version of Jack Smith’s slightly earlier Normal Love, which features extravagantly costumed and casually naked behavior en plein air. Here we see the Pranksters off the road and ripped on acid, skinny-dipping in the muck, inventing tie-dye (you are there!), and tootling their instruments kindergarten-style. It’s one thing to read about a driver who, according to Stone, “could roll a joint while backing a 1937 Packard onto the lip of the Grand Canyon”; it’s another to watch motor-mouthed Cassady in action, spinning the wheel while ignoring the road. As vivid as Wolfe’s descriptions are, it’s astonishing to see the Prankster bus, festooned with American flags and a banner reading, “A Vote for Barry Is a Vote for Fun,” drive backward through Phoenix.

Gibney and Ellwood have a sense of historical evanescence and inevitability. Kesey’s eccentric odyssey was almost instantly recuperated on a mass scale. Thus, Magic Trip provides a mental match cut from the Prankster-mobile to a commercial tour bus exploring the Haight three years later and concludes on a nostalgic note with the inevitable Grateful Dead anthem “Truckin’.” What it lacks, perhaps unavoidably, is a sense of the cosmic Now; the movie recovers, without exactly illuminating, a “long, strange trip” that seems all the stranger as it recedes into the past.