According to Appellate Judge James A. Stewart, this is the story of a tragedy and a remarkable book, although you'll find no paranoid androids here.
"If there were any plan in the universe, any pattern to human life, surely it could be discovered mysteriously latent in those lives is suddenly cut off. Either we live by accident and die by accident, or live by plan and die by plan."—Gabriel Byrne as Brother Juniper
It's no coincidence that British Prime Minister Tony Blair read the closing lines from Thornton Wilder's 1927 novel when remembering his country's victims of the World Trade Center attack, as Russell Banks notes in the foreword to the 2004 HarperCollins reissue of the book. The questions raised in the novel and movie are those raised by any tragedy. Since I was watching soon after the devastation in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region, my thoughts as I watched were of the losses there. Despite some flaws, I found the movie, which deals with the questions behind any "act of God," therapeutic after weeks of seeing destruction on the evening news. I considered an opportunity to view tragedy from a historical distance a blessing in this media-saturated age, but I leave that to your individual discretion.
If you have read the novel, you'll find that The Bridge of San Luis Rey, for the most part, keeps the spirit of Wilder's classic. It does make changes, however. Instead of three stories framed by present-day reflections on Brother Juniper's quest, it weaves the three pieces into a whole, framed by Juniper's heresy trial. Thus, viewers learn Juniper's fate at the end, while the novel put it up front. The structure lets the moviemakers preserve much of Thornton Wilder's writing, mostly in Juniper's narration and in the statements of the Archbishop.
Five people died when the Bridge of San Luis Rey, a rope bridge built by the Incas, broke after a century of use, sending them into the gulf far below. The people who might have been on the bridge, but weren't, contemplated how close they had come to being on the bridge when it broke. "Within 10 minutes, myself. It would have been me," Brother Juniper (Gabriel Byrne, Ghost Ship, Stigmata) says as he recalls that moment. Brother Juniper is no ordinary witness to tragedy, though. The monk has spent a lifetime trying to decipher the meaning behind "acts of God"—and he sees a chance to answer all his questions through study of the lives lost that day. Since he's living in the era of the Inquisition, his inquiries—and the book he's compiled with the minutiae of the lost lives—have caused him to be put on trial for his life before the Archbishop (Robert De Niro, Raging Bull, Brazil). As his trial unfolds, so (in flashbacks) do the lives of the five lost people. The scenes between De Niro and Byrne reminded me of a Greek tragedy, with De Niro taking on the roles of inquisitor and chorus to Byrne's tragic hero.
By weaving the stories together, the movie puts one first—that of the Marquesa de Montemayor (Kathy Bates, Fried Green Tomatoes, Misery). The Marquesa, who has escaped the Inquisition three times, is seen as a buffoon; the butt of jokes as she stumbles into the Viceroy's chambers for an audience. Her trip to the theater becomes a humorous set piece as she sneezes and yawns, drawing horrified, then mocking, attention from La Perichole (Pilar Lopez de Ayala, Juana la Loca), the primadonna actress on stage. The Marquesa becomes a sympathetic character when we learn of her secret pain—a daughter who doesn't love her. To help the Marquesa avoid trouble, the Archbishop presses a young nun (Adriana Dominguez) into reluctant service as her companion. Bates gives a strong performance, commanding the screen with her tears and her expressions of embarrassment and pain. Through it, she creates a portrait of a strong woman who rises above mockery and the times she lives in.
La Perichole, the beautiful actress who is a presence throughout, becomes a lesser axis around which this movie revolves. The stories of three victims—the silent Esteban (Michael Polish, Twin Falls Idaho), whose twin brother adores her as he writes her letters; Uncle Pio (Harvey Keitel, Taxi Driver, The Two Jakes), the theater impresario who watches over her; and Jaime, her young son—are seen mainly through the prism of her life. Through much of the movie she's petulant and temperamental, but the tragedies that visit her life go beyond the events on the bridge, transforming La Perichole and giving de Ayala some fine moments. Keitel gets a strong scene near the end, but the twins who play Esteban and his brother don't get enough to do here. While I enjoyed the strong performances of Bates and de Ayala, I felt that the other characters lost something in this movie translation.
Spain stands in for 18th Century Peru here. There are some breathtaking scenes of the bridge, but the movie relies heavily on interiors. With the actors kept in shadow in many scenes for dramatic effect, the transfer does a good enough job keeping their expressions from being lost. A few daylight scenes, however, seemed faded. The sound is good, and the subdued Andean-styled score was excellent. As always, I found the inclusion of unspecified DVD-ROM extras tantalizing but annoyingly inaccessible. The only other goodie here is a theatrical trailer, which condenses the story (a little too well) into about three minutes.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey cost $24 million to make, but took in a grim $49,981 during its three weeks of U.S. release, playing in no more than six theaters at any given time; globally, it made only $1,400,008. It's a shame, since the movie is well-done and thoughtful. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Theatrical Trailer
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