I don’t get too worked up for running times, I feel any movie of any length can be justified. Lord, did I want to review Mysteries of Lisbon without acknowledging its length, which is 4 and a half hours, but that seems to be the most objectionable aspect of it for those who object to it, so it demands mentioning. Could a version of Mysteries of Lisbon be made in a standard 2 hour length? Undoubtedly. Would that version be within shouting distance of the quality of the film as it stands now? Just as undoubtedly no. This is the most epic film of the year, a living family tree that gives you every detail and tells it’s story in such a way that every minute seems like a necessity rather than an extravagance. Transformers 3 certainly felt longer.
Mysteries of Lisbon is about a 14-year-old orphan discovering the story of his family. We get flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks, distant relatives get their own substory that help flesh out the main thread and all in immaculate 19th century costume. I loved this movie. It reminded me of some other behemoth epics like The Leopard (1962), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and Giant (1956), movies I couldn’t admire more. What director Raoul Ruiz, unknown to me until this film, does that goes beyond those movies is experiment with the tone and style of his storytelling. Usually this is a dangerous proposition and there are times when the gamble fails but in Mysteries of Lisbon we are getting a modern film with expressionist flourishes and steeped in both Gothic and baroque imagery and style.
The camera becomes a character, moving as fluidly and subtly as Scorsese has ever made it move and at its service the plot, which is like Balzac in its sprawling style and Dickensian in its richness of characters. The story of a boy searching for where he came from is nothing new and there isn’t anything special in this story except for its scope and utter determination to investigate everything. Ruiz died in 2011 and so Mysteries of Lisbon will be his final piece of filmwork and what a haunting and self-assured finale he makes. This is a movie of heft and consequence, spellbinding and moving and an example of what movies can be.