Film review: Mysteries of Lisbon and Footnote

by Fiona Rae / 14 April, 2012
Lisbon is a luxurious epic, and Footnote features an epic-grade father-son conflict, says Helene Wong.

If you have four-and-a-half hours to spare and fancy luxuriating in a movie, look no further than Mysteries of Lisbon. Based on a 19th-century novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, it is an epic saga sprawling across three decades and multiple locations, weaving in and out of the lives of Portuguese nobility, priests, gypsies and pirates. In the assured and experienced hands of Chilean director Raúl Ruiz, its leisurely pacing never drags, since every moment, look and gesture accumulates information and meaning to propel you on. Even passages heavy with exposition seem to flow because of this layered content.

Beginning with João, an orphan boy on a quest to discover his parentage, the tale roams across Europe and as far as Brazil, introducing characters who strut and fret across the stage in episodes of folly and fallibility while caught up in love, conflict and revenge. Surprising links between them are revealed. Intrigue abounds: eavesdropping servants, false identities and the strategic dropping of billets-doux. There are coincidences, twists and flirtations with the surreal. Thus, despite the solemn and sometimes sombre tone, there’s almost a sense of fun, as if we are taking part in a game to figure out where all this is going.

Visually, it’s stunning. Shot in HD, it feels cinematic as well as intimate. Most of all, though, it feels like a painting, one with a gorgeously muted palette evoking a dream-like ambience. It goes without saying that costuming and art direction are also beautiful, yet there is restraint, in keeping with that palette, so they never draw undue attention. As for the grand interiors of the homes of the elite, they are as stately as the film’s pacing but at the same time starkly and authentically cold in their formality.

With such a large canvas, this film is not about deep character so much as creating a world and spinning a yarn inside it, and in this respect Branco, screenwriter Carlos Saboga and Ruiz – who, sadly, died last year – are consummate storytellers. In their company, the hours pass exceedingly pleasantly.

MYSTERIES OF LISBON, directed by Raúl Ruiz. Click here for times and theatres.

Footnote is a miserable story. It also is funny, plays like a thriller and has valuable things to say. Those who work in academic institutions will either love it or hate it, but they should relax; thematically it goes well beyond ivy'd walls.

Eliezer Shkolnick (Shlomo Bar-Aba) is a professor at the Hebrew University, who has spent 30 years researching a risibly minuscule patch of enquiry in the field of Talmudic studies. An act of academic one-upmanship by a colleague has turned him into a lonely, embittered husk, clinging to the footnote of the title as his one claim to fame. His son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) is the opposite: an acclaimed writer, teacher and speaker in the same field. When one of them is awarded the prestigious Israel Prize, the father-son conflict escalates into an excruciating, epic-grade dilemma fuelled by vanity, jealousy, compassion and more.

It's a brilliant way for writer-director Joseph Cedar to explore the fraught dynamics of family, professional ambition and ethical behaviour, and he doesn't stop at father and son. Colleagues, wives and children are also infected; sometimes they even aggravate the situation. But he's a smart enough film-maker to lard all this tragic content with suspense and humour. Visual choices are designed to subtly ramp up tension, and in one memorable scene of top academic brass crammed into someone's cupboard of an office for a crucial meeting, a vein of farce pulsates.

It's satire, though, that leaves the strongest impression. Under the surface of this small-scale family drama, American-born Cedar smuggles in a large-scale political metaphor. I'm curious to know how it went down with Israeli audiences, because its depiction of stubbornness, hollow victories and intergenerational grudges couldn't be more pointed.

FOOTNOTE, directed by Joseph Cedar. Opens April 19, click here for times and theatres.
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