The Stoneraft

Whether 1998 Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago's complex, ironic, often fantasy-tinged works are filmable remains an open question after "The Stoneraft," a semicomic, semiapocalyptic adventure that reps a directorial mismatch with thriller specialist George Sluizer's ("The Vanishing," "Utz") proven strengths.

With:
Pedro - Federico Luppi Maria - Iciar Bollain Jose - Gabino Diego Joana - Ana Padrao Joaquim - Diogo Infante (Spanish, Portuguese dialogue)

As the 20th century novel tilted increasingly away from narrative emphasis and toward the importance of authorial voice and structural experimentation, many of its greatest literary figures have proved exceedingly difficult to adapt into other media. Whether 1998 Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago’s complex, ironic, often fantasy-tinged works are filmable remains an open question after “The Stoneraft,” a semicomic, semiapocalyptic adventure that reps a directorial mismatch with thriller specialist George Sluizer’s (“The Vanishing,” “Utz”) proven strengths. Watchable, but lacking the requisite flavors of enchantment, satire and warmth, this curious but unpersuasive parable will have a tough time making B.O. inroads outside the writer’s native Portugal and adopted home of Spain.

Expectations are raised by a promising initial half-hour that establishes principals’ shared linkage to baffling super-natural events. A young woman (Ana Padrao) walking down a Portuguese country road draws a line in the dirt, and a small fault immediately opens beneath it; birds fly crazily over genial teacher Jose’s (Gabino Diego) schoolyard; amateur fisherman Joaquim (Diogo Infante) throws a heavy rock into the sea, only to see it lightly skip atop the waves; widowed farm owner Maria (Iciar Bollain) unravels endless yarn from a single discarded sock.

More imposingly, a sudden, inexplicable chasm appears along the Spanish-French border, eventually detaching the Iberian Peninsula from Europe — though no seismograph registers the least activity. Only aged small-town pharmacist Pedro (Federico Luppi) can feel the earth trembling beneath.

The moody but inexorably drawn Joaquim determines to find an answer as panic spreads. First, curious news reports lead him to Jose, who is followed everywhere by a massive flock of starlings (a nifty digital effect). Duo are then approached by the willfully mysterious Joana (Padrao), whose walking stick had provoked miniature land rifts.

Now a trio tooling around in Joaquim’s compact car, they pick up bachelor Pedro plus a likewise extrasensorially touched stray dog who serves as guide. Canine leads them to Maria’s farm, where they enjoy an idyllic few days puzzling out their intertwined destinies, while disaster (an Iberian “floating island” colliding with the mainland) looms.

That catastrophe does not come to pass, though its avoidance — as inexplicable as the earlier geologic events — arrives only after waves of looting, religious hysteria and mass evacuation have further shaken the region’s populace. By that point, protags have reluctantly traveled on, journeying high into the Pyrenees. There, a death and metaphorical rebirth ends tale on an ambiguous yet hopeful note, with the newborn isle posited as world’s “new Atlantis.”

Once first reel’s portentous physical phenomena are dispatched, “The Stoneraft” narrows into a small ensemble road pic that grows steadily more ponderous, with Sluizer’s straightforward, emotionally neutral approach imbuing atmosphere with too little mystic fascination or human empathy.

The cool tenor does little to abet chemistry in the two eventual romantic pairings or to develop a sense of camaraderie between all five protags — a shortcoming especially felt when they and aud are called upon to mourn one of the characters’ demise. Thesps are OK, but only Diego’s comically guileless, sweet-natured Jose captures a needed spirit of human wonder.

Result is intriguing but stubbornly fails to develop a life independent of literary conceit. Droll segs portraying media and global response (the U.S., naturally, rushes in with useless military force) could have been taken a good deal further, while story’s subtext of uniquely Iberian issues will mean nothing to most international auds.

Henny Vrienten’s accordion-flavored orchestral score adds a whimsical flavor, while Goert Giltaij’s lensing handsomely captures the oft-glorious locations without ever quite taking one’s breath away. Special effects are for the most part impressive, though larger-scale sequences are largely — and disappointingly, from a viewer standpoint — limited to early progress. Tech aspects are all expertly handled.

The Stoneraft

Spain-Portugal-Netherlands

Production: An MGS Film production in association with Sociedad General de Cine, Lusomundo Visuals. Produced by George Sluizer. Executive producer, Anne Lordon. Co-producers, Fernando Bo Vaira, Luis Bordallo Silva. Directed by George Sluizer. Screenplay, Yvette Biro, Sluizer, based on the novel by Jose Saramago.

Crew: Camera (color), Goert Giltaij; editor, Jan Dop; music, Henny Vrienten; art director, Felix Murcia; costume designer, Jany Temime; visual effects supervisor, Joris Sluizer; sound designers (Dolby Digital), Antonio Bloch, Peter Flamman; assistant director, Manuel Canizares; casting, Ceclia Bayonas, Americo Pineiro, Patricia Vasconcelos. Reviewed at Montreal World Film Festival (competing), Aug. 27, 2002. Running time: 103 MIN.

With: Pedro - Federico Luppi Maria - Iciar Bollain Jose - Gabino Diego Joana - Ana Padrao Joaquim - Diogo Infante (Spanish, Portuguese dialogue)

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