In 19th Century Portugal, young João is living in as an orphanage in a boys' school, and he is victimised by the other pupils for his supposed illegitimate status as much as his lack of parents: nobody even seems to know what his real name is, never mind where he came from. He is looked after by Father Dinis (Andriano Luz) who may be more aware of what the youngster's background is than he is letting on, so when João is attacked with a wooden ball in the corridor and has a fit as a result, once he is convalescing he has strange vision and dreams of a woman who may be his mother or may be someone else connected to him. Could these be memories of his earliest years?
In fact, could the whole movie be a selection of memories and therefore subject to the pitfalls of misremembering and hazy details unrecorded anywhere else, hence victim to the whims of simply getting mixed up? This was director Raoul Ruiz's final feature film before his death and was lauded all over the world, as much triggered by the thought a veteran moviemaker had crafted a masterpiece just before he shuffled off the ol' mortal coil as it was an appreciation of the work itself. It was certainly quite touching that he should be so highly praised just as he was leaving us, but it did tend to obscure the fact that not everyone was quite as bowled over with Mysteries of Lisbon.
Indeed, there were many who tried to give this a go, braving the four-and-a-half hour running time, and were rendered in a state of stultified boredom throughout, with nothing to appreciate but the attractive design, costumes, sets, photography, all that sort of business. Not enough to sustain a narrative that deliberately grew more muddled as more experience was gathered, to the point where you didn't know whether you could trust any of the accounts of intrigue as delineated by Camilo Castelo Branco's novel, particularly when it more or less ended in the way that any primary school teacher will tell you never to end your stories. That this may be part of the mysteries in itself was not enough to salve that ultimate frustration.
Not least because if you dedicated yourself to following all the strands of plot, it was an exercise in futility should you wish for a cut and dried story where everything was wrapped up in a neat bow, which it most certainly was not. Therefore you had a film where you would be better off appreciating the scenery as it went by, and noting the bizarre twists as they arose and were supplanted by fresh confusion, realising that enjoying the work scene by scene was not a bad thing in itself if you could lose yourself in the acting or the overall appearance of the thing. Not that it looked like anything much more lavish than a typical Sunday night costume drama serial, which not so coincidentally was another incarnation of this.
It was also available in a six hour television version, with different things taken away, added and moulded, so that indicated there wasn't even a definitive telling of the story by Ruiz, as if it wasn't convoluted enough. With its running time picking up and dropping a selection of sequences where characters would have some dramatic revelation about their past, or would take some drastic decision that would either end their lives or put them into a severely muted form (dedicating one's life to the church, for instance, is the kiss of death to any promising existence), there was precious little to latch onto in a conventional form. This may have been more successful on the page where the author can play literary games, yet on the screen it came across as rather perverse to resist the most obvious styles of cinema narrative, fair enough rules are made to be broken, but nobody said that needed to happen to the extent of making much of the audience suspect they were wasting their time - quite a lot of their time, at that - with the equivalent of a historical shaggy dog story.