Raul Ruiz, 1941–2011: Death of a Little-Known Movie Master

The Chilean filmmaker produced a body of work so inventive, demanding and rewarding that he deserves to be in the company of giants such as Bergman, Godard, and Fellini

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Chilean director Raul Ruiz

“My films are poor,” Raul Ruiz said in a recent interview. “They’re like my family. They are all poor, but they have longevity.” The Chilean-born writer-director had a huge movie family: in a prodigious career that spanned nearly a half-century, he made about 90 feature films and 30 shorts, many of which have earned the lasting esteem of the world’s critics and cinephiles. But longevity was something Ruiz could not claim for himself. Operated on two years ago for stomach cancer, he succumbed Friday, Aug. 19, in Paris, at 70.

Two thoughts might enter an American reader’s mind: That’s a shame; and Who was he? The answer: Raul (also Raúl and Raoul) Ruiz was an exceptional filmmaker who flourished at just the wrong time to have his work appreciated here. Back in 1963, when he made his first expressionist short, La maleta, international cinema was an enthralling preoccupation of the American thinking class. Bergman, Truffaut, Godard, Buñuel, Fellini, Antonioni and Kurosawa were not only making great films; they were brand names to rival Gucci, and a new work by any of them could stoke passionate debate at cocktail parties and in college dorms.

Born and raised in Chile, and living in Paris since he exiled himself after the 1973 assassination of Salvador Allende, Ruiz produced a body of work so inventive, demanding and rewarding that he deserves to nestle in the company of those giants. Also the Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges, ever molding what we think of as reality into the extraordinary balloon animals of his imagination. And though Ruiz’s movies aren’t as accessible as superhero blockbusters, they can be enthralling. To the receptive viewer they open whole worlds, dozens of characters, trapdoors of narrative surprise and revelation. Their closest cousins are the 19th century novels Ruiz adored and often adapted, and the telenovelas — Latino soap operas — that he worked on as a young man in Chile and Mexico. Admirers of brain-teasing mystery novels should flock to Ruiz films.

But in the last few decades, Americans’ interest in foreign-language films has waned so that only a few of Ruiz’s works received full release in the form he made them (the 2006 Klimt, starring John Malkovich as the Austrian painter, opened here in a “producer’s cut” 34 minutes shorter than the director’s). Three Lives and Only One Death, in 1996, gave Marcello Mastroianni one of his last great roles — actually three or four roles, since the actor reappears in different guises through several interwoven vignettes. Time Regained, an elegant and endearing adaptation of the final volume of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, came out in 1999. And a year before his death Ruiz completed what may be his masterpiece: Mysteries of Lisbon, based on Camilo Castelo Branco’s 1854 novel of intrigue and family secrets, which had its theatrical debut in New York City a week before the auteur’s death.

The rest of the civilized movie world knows Ruiz as a playful, provocative intellect with not a trace of writer’s, filmer’s or talker’s block. In addition to his movies he wrote 100 or so plays and lectured around the world, from Aberdeen, Scotland to Harvard. A one-man shelf of illustrated great books, he filmed works by Kafka (The Penal Colony, 1970), Racine (Bérénice, 1983), Shakespeare (Richard III, 1986) and Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island, 1982, with a cast that included Martin Landau and Godard icons Jean-Pierre Léaud and Anna Karina). Acknowledging no distinction between high and popular culture, he made films for art museums and for B-movie entrepreneur Roger Corman — The Territory, a true-life horror movie with Ruizian twists, in 1981.

But range and quantity are only his most obvious attributes, for Ruiz is a puzzlecrafter of Will-Shortzian dexterity and deviousness. In his breakthrough film, the 1979 The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting, an unseen commentator discusses a series of paintings with an on-screen narrator, who walks into the frames as the people in the works come alive, like the ghosts in the wall art at Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. The seaman in the 1982 Three Crowns of the Sailor regales a forlorn student (the boy has just killed his teacher) with his adventures. Tale-spinning is the sailor’s gift and his curse, but the character suits Ruiz, who knows that all stories are spectacular lies. In the 1996 Genealogies of a Crime, a lawyer (Catherine Deneuve) defends a young man accused of killing his aunt (also Deneuve) — and then the plot gets complicated. All three films are available at Netflix and on Amazon.com.

(See “The Heyday of Foreign Films.”)

You can and should track down the chic, assured, star-stocked Time Regained, for it is an ideal Proust in pictures, roaming through prewar drawing rooms and attending to whispers of malice and amour. A brilliant man (Marcello Mazzarella, as Marcel) talks to a ravishing woman (Emmanuelle Béart, as Gilberte) of an old wound. “Heartbreak can kill,” he says, “but leaves no trace.” The roue Charlus (Malkovich) takes his sexual pleasures at the business end of a whip. These characters are often crushed by the burden of glamour, but the film isn’t. It wears its gravity with a buoyant ease, seeing through walls, magically turning statues into people. Like the turn-of-the-20th-century fantasy films of Georges Méliès, Time Regained reminds you that all cinema is a clever trick of the light.

Or of the dark. “In today’s cinema (and in today’s world) there is too much light,” Ruiz wrote in his book Poetics of Cinema 2. “It is time to return to the shadows. So, about turn! And back to the caverns!” In Mysteries of Lisbon, cinematographer André Szankowski sculpts seductive shadows around schemers whose motives are always murky. In a school run by Father Dinis (Adriano Luz), an orphan named João learns that his real name is Pedro da Silva and his real mother the Countess Angela de Lima (Maria Joäo Bastos), who was forced to abandon the boy when she married the cruel Count de Santa Barbara (Albana Jerónimo). In screenwriter Carlos Saboga’s masterly distillation of the novel, Mysteries follows the grown Pedro (José Afonso Pimentel) and many other characters of high and low estate — gypsies, pirates, slave traders, assassins — through years of shifting relationships and masked identities.

“Soap opera,” Ruiz said, “is an organism with an excellent liver that digests anything.” In Branco’s novel, as in much Latino melodrama — in Pedro Almodóvar films and the telenovelas that can extend for decades — the standard revelation comes in the form of “But that man [woman] is your son / father [daughter / mother]!” Mysteries of Lisbon suggests that identity is a social convenience, changeable at whim. Father Dinis, for instance, is a master of disguise who might be Zeus or Zelig, so often does he materialize in expected places. (At times Ruiz will move the camera from a tête-à-tête conversation to a corner of the room, where Father Dinis just happens to be.)

(See “The Latin New Wave Crests.”)

It seems as if everyone in mid-19th-century Lisbon — and in Paris, Italy and Brazil, where the story eventually wanders — has a mystery. New characters often emerge to seize control of the narrative, at least briefly; it’s as if strangers on a train were encouraged to recount their life stories, and each biography happened to touch on every other. Ruiz observes these oblique and volcanic kinships with a mood of “intense detachment” (his phrase), in which the hot blood of the characters is viewed through a camera eye that is both fascinated and disinterested. Many scenes are of long, intimate conversations: four-, six-, eight-minute shots in which the slowly moving camera creates subtle shifts in the power vectors, then retreats tactfully or mischievously at a climactic moment. At other times Ruiz will employ optical distortions, or tracking shots that might have been choreographed by Balanchine, as the titanic score of composer Jorge Arriagada (who’s worked on 54 Ruiz films) uses motifs to hint at the characters’ multiple identities.

The film might be more palatable in smaller doses; in fact it was created as six one-hour TV episodes, which allowed viewers a night or a week to digest each new startling twist or perplexing detour. Seeing it in one fell swoop requires reserves of concentration in the viewer — and possibly a flow chart of the people and their complex and shifting kinships. Yet Mysteries is a labyrinth that fully rewards the challenge of watching it and does lead to clarity, resolution and grace, in a final Pieta that is both anguished and angelic.

In a TV interview, Ruiz spoke of his pleasure in immersing himself in this serial drama. “The satisfaction felt was of a return to the past — to when I was 21, 22 years old, and helping to direct soap operas in Mexico and in Chile. So it’s like closing the cycle. The cycle has been closed.” For this inexhaustibly protean filmmaker, the cycle was closed prematurely. But it can continue if adventurous moviegoers acquaint themselves with the teeming family of Raul Ruiz movies.

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