The House of the Spirits
directed by Bille August
starring Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons,
Glenn Close, Winona Ryder
Antonio Banderas and Vanessa Redgrave
Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits, and a novel which moves naturally between dreams; myth and reality, skillfully weaving together magic and politics in an epic Latin American tale, somehow flops in the jump to the movie screen, where writer and director Bille August creates a confusing jumble of characters and story lines, capturing none of the magic or fluidity of Allende's book.
"The House of the Spirits" as a film simply dose not work., Conjectures as to why this is so range from the competing personalities of a international all-star cast (Jeremy Irons, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Winona Ryder, Vanessa Redgrave, Antonio Banderas, and the list goes on), to the diverging interests and interpretations of a Danish director (Bille August), a German producer (Bernd Eichinger) and a Chilean novelist.
Allende's complex novel, which producer Eichinger somehow found "perfect for the motion picture screen," is reduced to a confused soap opera. Magical realist elements become comedic interludes, political ideals seem fake or out of place, and powerful relationships are simplified to sappy love affairs.
The film begins with scenes of upper-class Latin American society in the 1920s. Rosa (Teri Polo), the ghost-like eldest daughter of the wealthy Del Valle family, is to marry Esteban Trueba (Jeremy Irons), a young entrepreneur determined t strike it rich in the gold mines.
Clara, Rosa's younger sister, records family events in her journal, and amuses herself with her psychic powers. She moves objects around the room with her eyes, producing only a slight reprimand from her mother (Vanessa Redgrave), who is apparently accustomed to her daughter's unusual gifts. Later, While telling fortunes to guests at a party in honor of the election of her father (Armin Mueller-Stahl) to the senate. Clara suddenly foresees her sister Rosa's untimely death. She screams at the shock of her premonition, which proves to be true (as are all of Clara's predictions). Hours later, Rosa dies from a poisoned bottle of wine intended for her father.
This first segment of "The House of the Spirits" is the most successful at capturing the magical-realist atmosphere found in Allende's novel. Rosa, with her ghostly beauty, and young Clara, with her psychic powers, tiptoe on the line between reality and fantasy, adding an other-worldly quality to the film's beginning.
Scenes of the Del Valle family and friends all dressed in white at a garden party are reminiscent of the wedding scenes in "Like Water for Chocolate," a film which "The House of the Spirits" often attempts to imitate. The magic is also present in the scene of Rosa's autopsy, and artful combination of fantasy and the grotesque.
After Rosa's death. Clara retreats into silence from the shock, emerging from her personal dream world 20 years later to marry Esteban herself and begin her life as matriarch of the Trueba family. the grown Clara (Meryl Streep) and much older Esteban (Jeremy Irons with another layer of make-up) move to Tres Marias, a restored country estate, where they are joined by Esteban's mysterious spinster sister, Ferula (Glenn Close).
Here the film disintegrates into a tangled web of competing story lines. August, whose past successes include, a Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1988 ("Pelle the Conqueror") and top prizes at Cannes ("Pelle the Conqueror" and "Best Intentions") was chosen by Allende to write and direct "The House of the Spirits." August described adapting Allende's dense novel as "a bit like being a boy in a candy shop," but he seems to have chosen all the wrong pieces for this feature-length film.
The Danish director, lauded by Ingmar Bergman and much of the international community, won't win any prizes for his screenplay and directions of "The House of the Spirits," In August's cinematic constructed relationships become a series of unrelated minidramas.
At Tres Marias, Clara gives birth to a daughter, Blanca, who is Raised with all luxury befitting a legitimate child in the now powerfully conservative Trueba family. Esteban has also fathered an illegitimate child, the son of the peasant worker (Sarita Choudhury) he raped on his estate. This illegitimate son is destined to grow up and terrorize the Trueba family.
Ferula, who has moved to Tres Marias at Clara's insistence, hovers over her distracted sister-in-law, attending to practicalities when Clara and Ferula wrapped up in her psychic powers. Clara and Ferula become the best of friends while Esteban, suspicious of a romantic relationship between the two to them, grows insanely jealous of this competition for his wife's attention.
With a blank gaze in her eyes and a ghostly expression, Meryl Streep, who studied psychics for her role as Clara is a spiritual but uninspired clairvoyant. Glenn Close is slightly more intriguing as Ferula, Esteban's repressed older sister, whose relationships with Clara develops lesbian undertones.
Jeremy Irons as Esteban, the patriarch of the Trueba family, ages from 20 to 70 over the course of the film. His acting improves in the film's second half, as his character grows from that of an impressionable young man in love to a domineering landowner and father.
Meanwhile, Blanca grows to be a young woman (Winona Ryder) and has an affair, with a revolutionary peasant, Pedro (Antonio Banderas), giving birth to an illegitimate child of her own, and infuriating her father, who is not insightful enough to realize that he has done exactly the same thing years earlier.
Suddenly it is the 1960s, and the Truebas are caught up in the country's political struggles. Clara continues to float around the house and exercise her psychic powers. While Blanca supports her revolutionary lover and fights for political change.
Winona Ryder's unpredictable acting is at its worst in "the House of the Spirit." Love scenes between Pedro and Blanca are meaningless; true passion is completely absent in their relationships. Pedro's attempts at fiery speeches intended to stir the peasant workers into revolt are equally uninspired, and we are left to puzzle over this sudden attempt at a political message.
August's films fails to capture the intricacies of Allende's novel. We lose all sense of "The House of the Spirits" as a Latin American epic. The movie was filmed in Denmark and Portugal, the characters speak English with a wide variety of accents. There is never a consensus as to the correct pronunciation of Spanish names and places, which are included (along with a handful of Hispanic actors) as one of the few reminders that "The House of the Spirits" is supposed to occur in Latin America.
With the exception of Banderas, Hispanic actors receive only secondary roles in "The House of the Spirits.' a film which should have provided greater opportunities to Latino actors.
Attempts at creating magical realism on film are abandoned after the opening scenes. August seems scared of losing touch with reality, and does not creates the magic which "Like Water for Chocolate" proved can artfully evoked on the movie screen as well as in literature.
August also ignores the feminist message which comes across so strongly in Allende's work. Powerful relationships, between women are glossed over or ignored. The bonds between generations and the significance of a movement from fantasy to political reality more than 50 year of Latin American history are never fully explored.
"The House of the spirits" leaves viewers unsatisfied. Although working with a treasure of Latin American literatures and an all-star cast, August somehow fails to produces a great work on film. Ultimately August's version of "The House of the Spirits" is only a ghost of Allende's full-bodied masterpieces.