Frankly, it blew our minds to hear people talking about the late Raul Ruiz's gargantuan literary adaptation Mysteries of Lisbon at last night's Nordstrom gala — and talking about how much fun it is, to boot. Let that serve as notice: You've got just two more chances today to see one of the year's most entertaining films, in one of the relatively few cities where it's going to play.
Not ready to move Ruiz up and Hot Fuzz down on your Netflix queue? Let's put it this way: Ruiz was the most sensuous, most pleasure-driven, and by far the most impatient of contemporary avant-garde directors. His epics are built for the era of hypertext and the refresh button. In the four-and-a-half hour Lisbon, possibly Ruiz's most colossal work (but who can be sure? Look at IMDB! There are a million things we'll never get to see!), a young boy in an orphanage (Joao Arrais) seeks to find out who his father was and what, precisely, is tormenting the mystery woman he suspects is his mother. As the young Joao attempts to crack the enigma of his own creation, a torrent of secret histories comes unstuck. A priest is really a reformed street crook in disguise, a reputable businessman is a onetime hired child assassin, and even the most transparently goody-good characters contain alternate universes.
Like Todd Haynes' leviathan Mildred Pierce, Lisbon is the showstopping work of an essayist on narrative form finally leaping, unself-consciously, into the baptizing waters of pure story itself. On one level, you can view Lisbon as a kind of psychoanalysis of why humans create stories about themselves — and the answer is, usually to defend against seeing, or letting others see, the worst parts of themselves. At the same time, Lisbon is a seemingly infinite (and infinitely absorbing) series of Russian-doll narratives — a cascade of hidden personal backstories that you feel could extend out to all of humankind. The incidental pleasures, like the staggering beauty of Ruiz's actress Maria Joao Bastos (overdue to drink Marion Cotillard's milkshake) and the gooseflesh-raising power of his composer Jorge Arriagada, recall David Lean's adaptations of Dickens and Forster.
UPDATE: Vanderbilt director of film studies Jennifer Fay will introduce tonight's 7:25 screening.