For Reel


Three Lives and Only One Death (1996)
February 27, 2012, 5:05 am
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Director: Raúl Ruiz

Featuring the penultimate performance of Marcello Mastroianni (that is, the penultimate four performances), Three Lives and Only One Death is discussed as the most accessible effort of Chilean master Raúl Ruiz, though that is not to say that it is in any way orthodox. It is, in fact, a thoroughly imaginative compendium, familiar of Ruiz for its rich, complex narrative, as well as its metamorphose sense of identity. Mastroianni plays a different man in four seemingly disparate stories, however characters cross-over from segment to segment and, in the end, the omniscient narrator suggests that each personality exists within the same being. So many anthology films are a waste of the technique – Jim Jarmusch’s best and most consistent efforts, for example, lack a convincing, reasoned suggestion of the thematic purpose behind the structure. For Ruiz, he playfully uses the form to not only suggest the inevitable role-playing that occurs within contemporary society, but he whimsically conceives a narrative that folds in on itself, making the audience consider the potential for elasticity within character. In Ruiz, nothing is rigid. The first of these segments – in which Mastroianni invites a companion to an apartment that he claims to be infested with fairies who spatially morph the environment and quicken time – is a masterful, drolly humorous episode, concluding with a bizarrely delayed death following a murder.



City of Pirates (1983)
February 26, 2012, 9:46 pm
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Director: Raúl Ruiz

Nearly impenetrable, the Chilean-born Raúl Ruiz’s City of Pirates is an often frustrating, but nonetheless rapturous experiment in surrealism. Inside a trunk resides vegetables and a man’s face; a ball hovers around a pair of mourning parents; an apparently schizophrenic apparition uses body language to describe various family members. The dialogue is of little help – as quoted in Janet Maslin’s review from the New York Times, one passage states, “Heinous honey of comets rise from the rose of their tacit conversations.” That the film still fools one into assuming clarity is an astounding achievement. Dave Kehr refers to Ruiz’s narrative structure as a “directed flow”, using the ocean as a metaphor for the way that the characters and plot are in constant evolution and yet are still possessing of definite boundaries. Ruiz’s visual associations are part of what brings the viewer into a transcendent lull, and just as important is the consistency of the protagonist, Isidore, as well as the almost grating, repetitive score. It is revealed that, some time before the picture is set, a family was massacred and a child somehow escaped. Is Isidore one-in-the-same with the child, or was she the culprit? How does the murderous boy that she meets relate to her own history? Does the film address two massacres or one? These questions will prompt varying responses depending on the viewer, but ultimately they are quite beside the point. This is fantasy at its purest. Maddening, sure, but in some, inexplicable way, grounded with a sense of dreamlike coherency.



Mysteries of Lisbon (2010)
January 15, 2012, 7:41 am
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Director: Raúl Ruiz

Weaving a labyrinthine narrative of tangential flashbacks-within-flashbacks, wherein the secondary characters of what has come before become the key figures of intrigue in their own stories, Mysteries of Lisbon, the last feature Chilean master Raúl Ruiz completed before his death, casts a spell that is easy to become lost in. And what a rapturous place this is to lose your bearings. To explain the intricacies of the plot – which is nothing if not convoluted – would be a challenge I am unworthy of pursuing, but at the center of the proceedings is an orphan boy who early on learns that his mother is a countess. “Center” is the appropriate word, as the boy’s identity is obscured somewhere within all of the love-triangles and jealous rages that are byproducts of his mere existence. With cinematographer André Szankowski, Ruiz achieves an aesthetic that recalls Ophüls, with an ever-moving camera that gracefully shifts from room-to-room, as well as surrealistic touches accomplished with a split-diopter lens and extreme low and high angles. As easy as it is to lose grasp of who is who – these are characters who often assume other identities – one gradually becomes accustomed to waiting for key revelations, which not only reframe the narrative but illuminate the often confounding behavior of the characters. Fittingly, the film concludes with still more, and even bigger questions, once again evoking the transcendent flexibility of purpose that permeates through every frame of the picture.