Delirious yet? That narrow introduction doesn't begin to convey the vertiginous experience of Mysteries of Lisbon's discoveries and resonances. By moving steadily further from the young Pedro's frame of reference, Ruiz suggests that every doomed love is its own even as they are invariably connected. The immersive nature of the flashbacks all but obliterates any semblance of Pedro's narrative through line, and leaves us vulnerable to alluring déjà vu (key repetitions of specific objects, framings, and dialog within different spheres of the plot). If Ruiz is partly poking fun at literary convention by repeatedly framing eavesdroppers in the extreme foreground and backgrounds of the frame, for instance, he's also giving us tangible figures of the thread that connects these disparate stories.
Ruiz's narrations are commonly likened to labyrinths, but for Mysteries of Lisbon's vigorous expansion I reach for the cosmos: one luminous sphere rotates another which in turn rotates a larger system, the whole of it spreading outwards in all directions at once. There are many other ways one could model the narrative's abundance — in interviews Ruiz cited the mathematical concept of overflow — but the point is not so many films inspire this kind of reflection. And if complexity is one measure of the film's greatness, flexibility is surely another. Throughout, Ruiz demonstrates that a distant long take need not be emotionally remote; that a shot can reveal as it conceals; that dramatic irony can fluctuate, giving knowledge itself an almost textural quality.
In one of the few scenes set outside a gilded room or convent, the older Pedro searches out his mother's grave. There he meets his grandfather, the formerly imposing Marquis, now a deluded blind beggar. It's the umpteenth case of a character cropping up in a different mask, and this one seems the most obvious kind of poetic justice. As the Marquis exits, his beggar companion approaches Pedro. He redundantly recounts the Marquis' fall, but then adds his own insight, that nobility's great tragedies are simply the stuff of life for beggars. Ruiz remains light on his feet well past the four hour mark, always prepared with another shift in perspective. Mysteries of Lisbon is not the kind of masterpiece you expect of an old man, but then Ruiz clearly had little use for such a simplistic concept of time.
MYSTERIES OF LISBON opens Sept. 30 in San Francisco.