At first glance, Denis Diderot’s rambling “Jacques le fataliste” might seem an ideal work for vet helmer Joao Botelho’s peculiar brand of artifice. But “The Fatalist” cries out for a Bunuel who can shape philosophical metaphors into biting and amusing celluloid, rather than a Botelho who strips cinematic content from the constant shower of epigrams. Compendium of tales held together by a chauffeur’s belief that everything is predestined sparkles with 18th century irony on the page, but it turns to lead when deliberately theatricalized. Finding an audience for this one will be hard going.
In the novel, Diderot wove a complex tapestry from seemingly unconnected stories told either by, or to, a man traveling with his servant. Poking at literary and moral conventions, Diderot teases his readers for their naive belief in some preordained pattern to life: Throughout the journey, the servant states that everything is determined from above, but his actions pointedly contradict his philosophy. He behaves as he likes while tossing aside any sense of culpability or consequence.
In Botelho’s adaptation, updated to the present, Tiago (Rogerio Samora) drives his boss (Andre Gomes) toward an unspecified destination, regaling him with stories of his sexual escapades. Both men exchange piquant tales and listen to other storytellers, while an omnipotent narrator interrupts with comments on the characters.
The length of the narratives vary, although the longest, told by an innkeeper (Suzana Borges), is also the most familiar, adapted by Robert Bresson for “The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne.”
Lady D. (Rita Blanco) attempts to get revenge on her lover the Marquis (Jose Wallenstein) by turning a cheap prostitute (Patricia Guerreiro) into a society lady whose charms lead to marriage with the nobleman. With its sharp class satire, this tale is the most successful of the meandering stories, thanks in part to more fully realized characters.
Much as he did in “Who Are You?”, Botelho emphasizes the theatrical elements, which renders the overflowing dialogue artificial. Occasionally bold, spot-lighted colors are pleasant to look at, and the music, including Brahms and Lhasa de Sela, is easier to concentrate on than the flood of aphorisms.