Set in Lisbon around the turn of the twentieth century (but always skipping back and forth in time), this colossal journey begins with a young orphan named João wondering if he’ll ever know who his parents are. The man who runs the orphanage is the benevolent Father Dinis (Adriano Luz), a man revealed as João’s life-long protector and who, it transpires, has been intricately involved in the messy business of João’s parentage. Another man, a drunken, belching gypsy known as Knife-Eater (Ricardo Pereira), is given a passage into high society under the alias of Alberto de Magalhães when Dinis (now playing the master of disguise) buys his loyalty away from a nobleman who has paid him to slay João at birth.
Endlessly discursive yet always controlled and compelling, ‘Mysteries of Lisbon’ examines the complexities of love and marriage while assuring that secrets exist only to be revealed and that the course of our lives is constantly manipulated by the tiny, off-hand desires of others. The script, which is adapted from a little-known novel by Portuguese writer Camilo Castelo Branco, makes sly references to the story’s self-contained neatness, such as when Dinis announces in a voiceover that ‘in life, there are events and coincidences of such extravagance that no novelist would ever dare invent them…’
The production design and costumes are immaculate, while Ruiz’s camera glides around soirées, ducks under tables and peers from behind curtains. The suggestion is that it’s a world any innocent bystander can infiltrate, but also that immersing yourself in other people’s petty affairs can be surprisingly engrossing if you view them from the correct vantage point. So actually, we’re not just asking you to make room for Ruiz’s breathtaking soap opera, but to block-book a week, a month, a year to (re)discover the largely unknown back catalogue of this quietly virtuoso and sadly departed filmmaker.