I have written extensively at this blog about the city mysteries genre, which began with Eugène Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris. Sue’s novel inspired a plethora of imitations, including Paul Féval’s The Mysteries of London (discussed in my book Vampire Grooms and Spectre Brides: The Marriage of French and British Gothic Literature), George W. M. Reynolds’ The Mysteries of London, Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, and George Lippard’s The Quaker City. Authors around the world wrote novels in a similar vein and often with the same title pattern. However, until recently, Portugal’s contribution to the genre, The Mysteries of Lisbon, was almost unknown to the English-speaking world. That changed in 2010 when Chilean filmmaker Raúl Ruiz filmed the Portuguese novel as Mistérios de Lisboa. The film is available with English subtitles at Amazon Prime.
Mistérios de Lisboa is based on the 1854 novel Os Mistérios de Lisboa by Camilo Castelo Branco (1825-1890). Unfortunately, Branco’s novel has never been translated into English, although scholar Stephen Basdeo announced on his blog in 2022 that he is in the process of translating it. Since I have not read the novel, this blog post will only discuss the film.
Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon, like the city mysteries novels that came before it, is a convoluted tale filled with individual characters who tell their backstories, many of which are a bit on the sordid side. Unlike the novels of Sue, Reynolds, and Féval, however, the film, and probably the novel, do not provide a cross-section of characters from the upper and lower classes but focus solely on members of the Portuguese and French aristocracy and nobility. The plot is not difficult to follow, even with reliance on the subtitles, but it is complicated enough that I imagine the novel has more subplots than the film offers since the novel was published in three volumes and runs more than 600 pages, although the film itself runs approximately 270 minutes.
The plot centers around a young boy named João who attends a school operated by Father Dinis. Unlike the other boys at the school, João does not have a last name and knows nothing about his parentage. After another boy bullies and assaults him over his unknown parentage, João becomes ill and loses consciousness. He wakes in a sort of delirium to discover the mother he has never met has come to visit him. The visit is short, but it causes João to question Father Dinis about his mother. In time, he learns she is Ângela de Lima, the Countess Santa Bárbara. However, her husband, the Count, is not João’s father. João has grown up thinking Father Dinis may be his father, but the priest assures him otherwise and will only tell him his father was an honorable man and that he died two days after João’s birth. In time, we learn João’s father was Pedro da Silva. Father Dinis arranges secret visits between João and his mother, but these are threatened by Count Santa Bárbara’s displeasure over her having contact with the boy. She has been locked up and mistreated by her husband for years, plus he has been carrying on an affair with a woman named Eugénia. Eventually, she leaves him to be with her son.
The count now spreads rumors about Ângela, but when Father Dinis goes to confront him, he finds him dying. Father Dinis then arranges for Ângela to visit the count at the count’s request because he wishes for her forgiveness. He dies before she arrives, but he leaves her a letter and she forgives him. The count leaves Ângela his fortune, but she rejects it and enters a convent. For João, her decision to enter the convent is heartbreaking because he has only just begun to know his mother, and now he feels he is losing her.
In flashbacks, we then learn the backstory of João’s birth. Ângela’s father, the Marquis of Montezelos, had been against João’s parents’ proposed marriage. Instead, he arranged for her to marry the Count de Santa Bárbara. After Ângela gave birth to João, she was told the child died, but the count gave the child to a gypsy named Knife Eater with orders to have it killed. However, Father Dinis, who was not yet a priest, paid Knife Eater for the boy and then secretly raised him, even changing his identity to that of a priest. Meanwhile, Knife Eater used the money he received to become a rich man.
Returning to the story’s main timeline, Knife Eater has adopted the identity of a Brazilian named Alberto and entered Lisbon society. Rumors surround Alberto, from him being a rich slave trader or a pirate to being a spy for Dom Pedro (the first Emperor of Brazil who first fought for Brazil’s independence and then invaded Portugal and for a brief time was king). Women faint over Alberto, apparently because he is so masculine, powerful, and sexy. Men challenge him to duels and die by his hand.
Meanwhile, Father Dinis, who has been keeping João’s birth a secret, discovers the secret of his own birth. When the Count Santa Bárbara died, Friar Baltasar da Encarnação gave him last rites, at which time he and Father Dinis met for the first time. Instantly, the friar realizes Father Dinis is his son. The friar reveals to Father Dinis that he was once Álvaro de Albuquerque, who seduced and fell in love with the married Countess de Vizo. They ran away together to Italy where she died while giving birth to Father Dinis. Álvaro was grief-stricken over her death and his sin. Feeling unable to raise his child, he gave it to a friend to raise; when that friend died, the child was passed on to a French nobleman to raise. This nobleman in time would die at the guillotine during the French Revolution. The young Father Dinis grew up to fight in Napoleon’s army under the name Sebastião de Melo.
Back in the present, Alberto has married Eugénia, former mistress of Count Santa Bárbara. He finds himself being stalked by Elisa de Montfort, a widowed French duchess. She says she is bent upon revenge, and eventually tells Father Dinis her story. Alberto had negotiated with her to have sex with her and finally she had agreed. After their liaison, Elisa kept coming back each night for more sex, gradually falling in love with Alberto and wanting to return the money he paid her. For Alberto, it is all a game and about the chase, so when she begins stalking him, he wants nothing more to do with her. Now she has come to Lisbon to try again to return the money he paid her. Her efforts cause Eugénia discomfort, although she knows Alberto has a sordid past. Elisa, however, also wants revenge. She allowed her brother Artur to believe Alberto wronged her. Artur had attacked Alberto, who killed him in self-defense, but Elisa blames Alberto for her brother’s death.
Father Dinis now reveals to Elisa that he knew her mother. In the middle of Father Dinis’ story, Alberto bursts in. Elisa tries to shoot him, but earlier, Father Dinis had removed the bullet from her gun. Alberto then tries to strangle Elisa, but he stops when Father Dinis calls him Knife Eater and he apparently fears Father Dinis will reveal his origins if he commits the murder.
After Alberto leaves, Father Dinis finishes his story, telling Elisa of how he had once been in love with her mother, Blanche, but that Blanche had loved his best friend, Benoit. Benoit was an aristocrat while Father Dinis was a bastard child, so he knew he could not compete with Benoit for Blanche’s love. Then Father Dinis and Benoit save Colonel Lacroze from a firing squad during the Napoleonic Wars and befriend him, only to have him begin an affair with Blanche. Dinis is very jealous, but Benoit is more jealous. When Lacroze is called back to service, Benoit does not tell Blanche, so she does not come to say goodbye to him and then he intercepts Lacroze’s letters so that she thinks he has forgotten her. In the end, Benoit convinces her to marry him. Meanwhile, Dinis leaves, unable to endure Blanche and Benoit’s happiness. Later, Lacroze commits suicide from heartbreak that Blanche has abandoned him. When Blanche learns Benoit lied to her about Lacroze abandoning her, she is deeply hurt, and soon she claims she is speaking to Lacroze’s ghost. Blanche then dies in a fire, which Benoit may have set.
We now return to João, who has grown up, adopted his father’s name of Pedro da Silva, and become a poet. When he sees Elisa, he falls in love with her. Elisa tells him how she was wronged by Alberto and that her brother was murdered by him, so João goes to Alberto to challenge him to a duel. They fight with swords, but when neither is wounded, they plan to switch to pistols. First, however, Alberto reveals he has known João since he was a baby and tells him of how he nearly killed him but sold him to Father Dinis. Alberto also explains that Elisa’s brother’s death was an accident and the result of self-defense.
The film becomes confusing here. After Alberto leaves the site of the duel, João takes over as narrator, stating how he feels lost and talked down to, as if he is just João again rather than Dom Pedro da Silva as he now styles himself after his father. The film actually shows him shooting himself after Alberto leaves, but he is apparently only wounded and does not die. João now feeling his life makes no sense, runs away from his past, but he knows that is impossible. He travels randomly (like a true Gothic wanderer) and ultimately goes to Tangiers. He seems to be pursued by the representatives of Alberto, who wishes to return to him the sum of money Father Dinis had given him for his life, but João does not want the money.
João finds an inn in Tangiers and there becomes ill. As the film ends, we see him dictating his memoirs to an African servant, discussing how he has never really known who he is and he sometimes wonders if his whole life has been a dream since the moment he lost unconsciousness and first saw his mother in his delirium. The ending is very existential and also the kind of melancholic ending typical of Romanticism. It would not be going to far to liken João’s existential angst to that of Frankenstein’s Monster.
While the film seems focused on realism most of the time, it also tends to deconstruct the illusion of reality in subtle ways. Supernaturalism is suggested when Blanche claims to be speaking to Colonel Lacroze’s ghost. In other scenes, the camera shows characters not walking but appearing to glide through a room like one might expect in a modern-day vampire film. Numerous interesting camera angles and camera tricks are used. At one point we see a filled teacup upside down. The suggestion of illusion is emphasized by the miniature play theatre that João’s mother gives to him soon after they are reunited. Several of the various storylines have moments where the characters are depicted as paper figures in the play theatre, suggesting that someone is manipulating the story and characters, or perhaps they are all part of João’s imagination. Less understandable oddities include Eugénia hiding under the furniture for no perceivable reason unless she fears Elisa. Alberto and Eugénia also have a servant with some sort of mental disability that causes him to be in perpetual motion as if running in place. The viewer notes all these oddities, but they do not fully register or make sense until the end when João suggests everything in the film may just have been a dream. They then suggest they are the oddities one encounters in dreams that do not make sense in the real world.
The film makes no references to Eugène Sue or any other author of the city mysteries genre, but at one point, when Pedro (formerly João) is told by a friend how Elisa’s brother died in a duel for her, he can’t help remarking that it is like a plot out of a novel by Mrs. Radcliffe, which shows the filmmaker and probably Branco was aware of the Gothic tradition and Mrs. Radcliffe’s works.
Truly, there is little about the film that is similar to The Mysteries of Paris. Yes, some of the characters have multiple identities and there are numerous interconnected plots, but we also have a string of counts and marquises without any of the social justice themes of Sue and Reynolds’ novels with their depictions of the lower classes. All the characters in Mysteries of Lisbon are upper class or connected to them. If the novel was influenced by earlier city mysteries novels, I suspect the influence came from Féval’s The Mysteries of London, since in that novel the protagonist, the Marquis de Rio Santo, is an Irishman who earns a Portuguese title of nobility and seeks revenge against his English enemies. Another influence may be Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, in which Edmond Dantès becomes the fabulously wealthy count who seeks revenge on his enemies. Alberto’s story is similar to both characters in that he gains great wealth and has an air of mystery about him, including rumors about his past and being a seducer of women like Rio Santo. However, Alberto is not set on revenge toward anyone but rather has Elisa set on revenge against him.
If there is a link to Sue’s novel, Stephen Basdeo suggests it lies in Father Dinis, who like Sue’s Prince Rodolphe, is a dispenser of justice, or at least one who tries to save others. He stops Alberto and Elisa from murdering each other, saves João from being killed as a child, saves the life of Colonel Lacroze, though it backfires on him, and brings forgiveness between the Count and Countess Santa Bárbara. His multiple identities are like those of Rodolphe, Edmond Dantès, Rio Santo, and many other characters in city mysteries novels, and he can be equated to Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, itself influenced by the city mysteries genre, in the way he tries to right wrongs.
That said, much of the novel may be autobiographical. Branco, like João, was an illegitimate son. His father was a younger son of a provincial aristocrat family. His father was impoverished because of the strict laws of primogeniture in Portugal at the time that meant the family property and fortune would have gone to the eldest son. Branco ended up orphaned at a young age, and after being raised by three aunts, like João, at age thirteen, he was sent to a seminary where he was educated by priests. He studied theology and considered becoming a priest, even taking minor holy orders, but later decided to devote himself to literature. Therefore, he must have had insight into Father Dinis’ soul. He was also well-equated with the upper class’ licentiousness and crimes. He was arrested twice, the first time for digging up his first wife’s body, and the second time for committing adultery with Ana Placido, a Portuguese novelist, who later became his second wife. In 1885, he became a member of the aristocracy when he was made a viscount for his contributions to literature. This honor is not surprising since he was probably the most prolific Portuguese author of all time.
The Mysteries of Lisbon is the only novel in the city mysteries genre to have been filmed, unless one counts the various film versions of The Count of Monte Cristo. The film won many awards, and despite the subtitles and its extreme length, it is a worthy depiction of a city mysteries novel. I hope more films of the city mysteries genre will be made, and in English. Meanwhile, I look forward to reading the novel when it is translated into English.
Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, Vampire Grooms and Spectre Brides: The Marriage of French and British Gothic Literature, King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City, and many other fiction and nonfiction titles. Visit Tyler at http://www.GothicWanderer.com, http://www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and http://www.MarquetteFiction.com.