Earlier this month, I somehow managed to convince my husband to go watch a nearly five-hour long movie. But it wasn’t just any movie, it was one based on the novella “The Mysteries of Lisbon” by the 19th-Century Portuguese author Camilo Castelo Branco, and starring some of my favorite Luso actors (mixed with a French cast) popular on Portuguese soaps and domestic movies, such as Adriano Luz, Ricardo Pereira, Jose Afonso Pimentel and Maria Joao Bastos.
It’s not every day that a movie inspired by a Portuguese writer and with predominately Portuguese actors gets play at the Lincoln Center in Upper Manhattan or at the IFC Center in the West Village. Granted, these are exactly the types of venues that would show a film directed by Chilean-born Raul Ruiz, probably best known for his 1999 Proust-inspired “Time Regained,” unlike at mainstream movie houses like the Loews where Blockbusters are the norm. Still it was a rare, proud moment to see “The Mysteries of Lisbon” written on an American marquee. Though slow-paced, and in my opinion, best watched at home or in a mini-series format, the movie is a masterpiece, if I may. It’s full of intriguing characters whose eventual back stories make the premise come full circle. There’s love, romance, betrayal, redemption—and of course mystery.
The story revolves around a young boy named Pedro (Joao Arrais) who lives in a boarding house run by Father Dinis (Luz). At first Pedro is presented as a bastard child, but as the plot unfolds we learn who his mother is and the people that have played a significant role in determining his fate, including a Portuguese businessman who makes his fortune in Brazil at first introduced to the viewer as Come-facas (Knife-eater) and then later as Alberto de Magalhaes (Pereira). As each new piece of the puzzle of Pedro’s past unravels, it’s emphasized on a cardboard puppet theater the boy received as a gift from his mother and on which he manipulates the figures to reflect each stage in his own life.
I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, but then again, lengthy films have been my thing for quite some time. As early as 12, I rented Doctor Zhivago and watched it all on my own. But this time, I sweetened up the deal for my hubby by throwing in an equally interesting dinner experience. In line with the evening’s Portuguese theme, I reserved a late-night dinner at the Macao Trading Company on Church Street, where east meets west and Asian and Portuguese cuisines fuse. It was dinner and a movie in the Big Apple, Portuguese style indeed. As a side note: Macao (or Macau) was a Portuguese colony from when the first Portuguese traders settled there in the 16th century until 1999.
We entered through iron wrought doors that opened into a dark, almost seedy looking place with what appeared to be “found objects” from travels arranged in a way that evoked a storage space of sorts. It had the gangster, underground, gambler feel Macao once had a reputation for. We were certainly transported. The décor melds the two cultures with Chinese wood-carvings and blue and white Portuguese tiling, for example. The menu is also a mutation of the two worlds. To start, I ordered the Portonic, a concoction of Dow’s White Port served over ice with Tonic, Cucumber and Mint. After walking a few very long New York City blocks in muggy rain from the movie to the restaurant, this crisp drink was exactly what I needed to get in a Macao state of mind. I had picked the restaurant for its Portuguese influence as well as its late-night menu serving until 3:30 am—a blessing given the movie’s length. It was past midnight when we arrived. The late-night menu was a much abbreviated version of the dinner menu, but we enjoyed it nonetheless and have been enticed to return to try the full offering.
We kicked it off with the steamed chicken and pork belly (Toucinho in Portuguese) dumplings and the Shrimp Toast in spicy soy mustard. The dumplings are delicious, but what took us aback was the shrimp toast. It was thick like French toast but coated in the mustard shrimp spread. We’re still talking about it! My original plan was to have the Organic African Chicken Piri Piri with preserved lemon as my entrée from the dinner menu, given what seemed to me as an inventive take on the Portuguese-African Piri Piri chicken, which I love. But on the late-night menu, I opted for the Brisket and Short-rib Beef Burger with a francesinhas sauce and white cheddar. Here the restaurant travels to the Porto region of Portugal where the Francesinha beer sauce-drenched sandwich is king and has been considered by AOL Travel as one of the Top 10 sandwiches of the world. The wine had to also be Portuguese, of course. We ordered a 2005 Muxagat Vinho Tinto from the Douro. The medium-bodied red paired well with everything. It was quite late by this time, but we still had room for one last thing, the Malasadas stuffed with vanilla cream. They’re a take on the doughnut-like confections especially popular on the Portuguese island of Madeira. Our travels through Lisbon and Macao ended there. It was dinner and a movie unlike any other we had embarked on before.