Australian director Rolf de Heer’s fondness for making films about isolated characters on the fringes of society, already amply demonstrated in “Bad Boy Bubby,” “Epsilon,” “The Quiet Room” and “Dance Me to My Song,” gets an elegiac work-out in “The Old Man Who Read Love Stories,” a gentle and immensely likable adaptation of the novel by Luis Sepulveda. Filmed entirely on jungle locations in French Guiana, and centered on an engagingly mellow and subtle performance by Richard Dreyfuss, this French-Aussie co-production presents a hefty marketing challenge but could post solid rewards in niche venues before a decent ancillary life where, unfortunately, its spacious visuals will be severely circumscribed.
Set in a small community threatened by a man-hunting jaguar, pic is reminiscent of “The Ghost and the Darkness,” which was also made by an Aussie director, Stephen Hopkins. But, although de Heer builds an atmosphere of suspense, he deliberately avoids the vicarious thrills that were featured in Hopkins’ lion film. Instead, he presents a character study of a simple man who finds his pleasures in the small things of life.
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In a stilted opening sequence, an unseen female narrator introduces Antonio Bolivar (Dreyfuss), a 60-ish man who lives in El Idilio, a village located beside a tributary of the Amazon. Bolivar, we are told, came here when he was a young man to help colonize the jungle. After this awkward start, de Heer hits his stride with a sequence in which Bolivar painstakingly reads the last sentence of what seems to be a trashy romantic paperback.
Flashbacks reveal the man’s story. His young wife died of a fever many years ago. After nearly expiring from a snakebite himself, he lived with an Indian tribe and befriended its leader, Nushino (Victor Bottenbley); but when white men attacked the Indians, Bolivar was expelled from the tribe.
He settled in El Idilio and became a recluse, virtually his only close friend being Rubicondo (Hugo Weaving), an itinerant dentist. The old man becomes interested in reading when he’s required to take part in a local election by voting for Luis Agalla (Timothy Spall), the blustering mayor of the village. Thereafter, the dentist keeps Bolivar supplied with romantic books loaned to him by Josefina (Cathy Tyson), the mayor’s servant and the dentist’s mistress.
The corpse of a hunter that has been badly mauled by a jaguar is discovered, and a search of the dead man’s belongings reveals that, after being given an illegal hunting license by the mayor, he killed and skinned a clutch of jaguar cubs. After Bolivar warns that the bereaved mother is likely to attack any human who crosses her path, the old man agrees to join in a hunt for the animal.
Although filmgoers seeking overt action may be disappointed, the right audience will appreciate this gentle and quite beautiful saga of courage and integrity. Above all, pic is a strong showcase for Dreyfuss, who displays innate charm, serenity and quiet authority. Weaving is excellent as the cheerful dentist. Tyson radiates warmth and sexuality as Josefina, while Bottenbley effectively portrays the leader of the Indian tribe. Spall broadly conveys the character of the venal mayor.
Location shooting in French Guiana provides an authentic backdrop for this Amazon saga, and the scenes involving the jaguar are beautiful and gripping. Technical credits are all solid, with Denis Lenoir’s widescreen camerawork a particular source of enjoyment.