Stately, good-looking and ambitious, “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” nonetheless wobbles like the renowned construction of the title. Visually, this third feature based on Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel makes the most of the $24 million budget, a high budget for a European production. But, the stellar cast can do little to paper over the cracks in an awkward, unevenly-paced script that is composed of a series of sometimes-attractive scenes with little emotional undertow. Pic’s thoroughly conventional treatment fails to exploit the richness of its source.
Released in Spain Dec. 22 to low-key B.O. reaction, “Bridge,” which was shot in the spring of 2003, is struggling to find U.S. distribution. Though it seems in step with the times thematically as it focuses on reason versus religion, the fact that the story famously concludes with the uncompassionate triumph of religious fundamentalism may not, given the current climate, be helping its chances.
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In the early 18th century in colonial Peru, a bridge over a ravine collapsed and five travelers plunged to their deaths. Franciscan monk Fray Juniper (a sleepy-eyed Gabriel Byrne), after investigating the disaster for six years, delivers his findings to a court presided over by the archbishop of Lima (Robert De Niro, weighed down by finery), as the lascivious viceroy of Peru (F. Murray Abraham) looks on.
Flashbacks show the aging, eccentric Dona Maria, the Marquesa of Montemayor (Kathy Bates), having bid farewell to her beautiful daughter Clara (an unconvincing Emilie Dequenne), lapsing into monomania, writing daily letters to Clara, who does not reply.
The archbishop contracts with Pepita (Adriana Dominguez), a nun from the convent run by the Abbess (Geraldine Chaplin), to be a companion for the Marquesa.
Meanwhile, the sprightly, kind-hearted Uncle Pio (Harvey Keitel) is in town with his protege, wannabe actress and one-time street urchin La Perichola (Pilar Lopez de Ayala). The viceroy takes a fancy to La Perichola and becomes her patron, but La Perichola is sleeping with a bullfighter.
Matters climax with a tragic, well-lensed ending on the bridge, and the illustrious conclusion — “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning” — is a potent idea which pic, unfortunately, fails to galvanize.
Even at more than two hours, pic struggles to bring its sizeable array of characters into focus — including Captain Alvarado (John Lynch), who appears in only a couple of scenes but has dramatic consequences for the story.
Other performers appear to be sleepwalking, with only Bates and occasionally Keitel extracting anything more than mannerisms from their roles; Abraham camps it up wildly as the viceroy. De Niro looks resigned to his monotone role, unable to do much more than come down on Juniper for his heresy. The lively Lopez de Ayala acquits herself well in her first English language performance.
Several scenes could have been deleted (including an unnecessary Perichola/bullfighter love scene). Also, Marquesa’s story starts too slowly — an example of where a tighter script less faithful to the novel would have benefited the pic.
Occasional set pieces — one has the Marquesa seemingly stepping into a Velazquez painting to retrieve a necklace — are delightful but add little to the cumulative effect. Dialogue is often stilted, recited rather than lived.
Helmer’s professed aim of making a film on a European budget that looks like Hollywood is achieved, with Javier Aguirresarobe’s lensing, Gil Parrondo’s set design and a series of carefully reconstructed Spanish locations combining to provide entirely convincing interiors with sumptuous detail. Exteriors, however, cry out for widescreen treatment. Lalo Schifrin’s guitar-based soundtrack is attractive, but sometimes too reminiscent of spaghetti Westerns.