By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com September 4, 2012 at 1:37PM
If you had to pick the final film to be completed after a forty-year career of over one hundred films, you’d certainly hope for one as masterful as “Mysteries Of Lisbon,” the four-hour 2010 epic that proved to be the last completed directorial effort from Chilean-born, French-settled filmmaker Raúl Ruiz. An internationally acclaimed Portugese-language costume drama, it’s one of the richest films of the last few years, and one that certainly served as a fitting crowning accomplishment.
But given that Ruiz made an average of two-and-a-half films a year, one would perhaps not be surprised to learn that it wasn’t quite the end of the story. The director had completed shooting on “Night Across The Street” before his death in August last year, with the film premiering at Cannes this May. But even that wasn’t all – he’d been prepping another Portugese epic, “Linhas de Wellington,” (or “Lines of Wellington”) before he passed. The flim was ultimately finished by his widow, and regular collaborator, Valeria Sarmiento – also a recognized, award-winning director in her own right -- with an all-star international cast stacked with past Ruiz collaborators, and a title dedication to the late director: “For Raúl Ruiz, who prepared this film.”
Penned by Carlos Saboga, the film is set in Portugal in 1810, as Napoleon’s army, led by Marshal Masséna (Melvil Poupaud), marches through the country. As it opens, the Portugese army, aided by English troops and leadership from Viscount Wellington (John Malkovich), have just won a famous victory at the Battle of Bussaco, but are still woefully outnumbered. In order to have any chance of seeing off the French for good, they must race to Lisbon, where Wellington has ordered the secret construction of enormous fortifications, where they can make one final stand.
Along the way, Sarmiento introduces us to a vast cast of characters, although the focus is principally on Chico Xavier (Nuno Lopes), a dedicated Portugese officer who falls in love with the wife (Jemima West) of a dead English colleague; and Pedro Alencar (Carloto Cotta), his 20-year-old lieutenant who’s survived a musket ball to the brain, who with the help of deserting Franciscan poet Bordalo (Adriano Luz), must get through hostile, French-held territory and catch up with his army.
Also knocking around are flirtatious British 17-year-old Clarissa (Victoria Guerra), British soldier Major Jonathan Foster (Marcello Urgeghe), distraught, bookish Vicente de Almeida (Filipe Vargez), who’s searching for his missing wife, prostitute Irma (Elsa Zylberstein), Xavier’s colleague Zé Maria (Jose Afonso Pimental), and a few dozen others – there are HBO shows with smaller casts than this film (and indeed, an extended three-part miniseries version will air in Portugal).
Although the constraints of the budget are sometimes felt a little bit, there’s a striking painterly quality to the film, particularly with the Goya-esque landscapes of devastation. There’s a real classicism to the filmmaking, which is not to say that Sarmiento is afraid to move the camera – the film opens with a bravura tracking shot across the aftermath of a battle, and the epic quality of the shots is consistently impressive.
Though quite languidly paced at two-and-a-half hours, the length feels necessary just to lay out the whole tapestry: from generals and officers to farmers and prostitutes, Sarmiento attempts to give a complete view of the war (although it should be said that the French are mostly portrayed as rather faceless villains).
As you might imagine, though, some of the storylines are more effective than others. The film is at its most gripping during Pedro’s travels, particularly when he come across an unhinged warrior priest, and in his relationship with Bordalo (a very fine performance from Luz, who was one of the leads in “Mysteries of Lisbon”). Xavier’s section, meanwhile, is quite different, more concerned with the common soldier’s view of the conflict, and while the romance section is somewhat underserved, at least in this cut, Lopes gives a superb, deeply sad turn which anchors much of the film.
Others aren’t as successful. Vicente’s quest for his wife, and his relationship with a desperate street child he takes under his wing, feel somewhat anemic and out of place. But far worse is the stuff involving Clarissa, who sleeps with Major Foster, and flirts with a number of others. Both Guerra and Urgeghe are Portugese, but have bafflingly been cast as English characters, and their performances (the accents in particular) are terrible. Given that native speakers like West and Malkovich (who has fun as a narcissistic Wellington, more concerned with his portraits than with the war) are in the film, it’s a very curious choice, and one that works firmly to the detriment of the film, at least for Anglophone audiences.
Also a little puzzling, though not so much of a problem, is the way the biggest names get the least to do. Michel Piccoli, Isabelle Huppert and Catherine Deneuve share a single, somewhat extraneous scene as a Swiss merchant, his wife and sister-in-law, but they at least have more to do than Chiara Mastroianni, who gets about six lines, or Mathieu Amalric, who gets about three. Perhaps they all have something more substantial to do in the TV cut.
That’s more of a nitpick, though. “Linhas de Wellington” isn’t going to reinvent the wheel – it’s somewhat turgid, and hardly exceptional. But it’s also handsome, generally well acted when the performers stick to their first language, and a detailed and smart look at a point in history that’s likely little-known outside of Portugal. One suspects that Raul Ruiz would feel a little proud. [B-]