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1 item from 1993

'House of Spirits'

27 December 1993 | The Hollywood Reporter | See recent The Hollywood Reporter news »

Bergman disciple Bille August brings his stern Scandinavian hand to the realm of magical realism in this sweeping, star-filled adaptation of Chilean writer Isabel Allende's popular novel.

A big, epic saga of the rise and fall of a wealthy South American family told against the backdrop of roiling political/social confrontation, ''The House of Spirits'' is a murky blend of forms and realities, a thudding fusion of contradictory forces -- alas, a confusion.

Opening in Germany, this robustly produced entity will have trouble arousing an audience on these shores beyond the first weekend when select-site viewers might venture out to see its all-star cast, including Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close and Meryl Streep. Word-of-mouth will be unenthusiastic, however, for this Miramax release, which ultimately wallows in melodramatic cliche.

On the upside, European viewers starved by their import quotas for the sort of big-family drama they find on ''Dallas'' may find interest in August's literal-minded adaptation of this rise-and-fall epic of a ogre-ish landowner and his ''spirited'' womenfolk.

Beginning in 1928 in a prototypical South American country (read Chile), ambitious Esteban (Irons) goes for the brass ring: He yearns to strike it rich as well as marry the beautiful daughter of the area's wealthiest man. Grim and single-mindedly ambitious, Esteban pays little heed to the magical powers possessed by his betrothed's young sister. He's a man fixated on wealth and power. His tenacity brings prosperity but also misfortune. His wife dies violently and he then marries her ''spirit''-filled sister, Clara (Streep).

Clara has the gift of clairvoyance, which the ultra-practical Esteban seems to regard as an asset, although non-mercantile thoughts do not occupy his narrow brain. Only his spinster sister Ferula (Close), who resides with Esteban and Clara at their splendid ranch, seems to appreciate Clara's ethereal ways.

With its blend of dream, magic and narrative, magical realism can extend our idea of what is ''real'' beyond the humdrum confines of everyday perception. But writer-director August's straightforward story does not tap into the possibilities of the genre. His distillation is woefully abstemious and unspirited, not partaking of the form's reality-expanding potential; as such, ''House of Spirits'' emerges as a rather routine, cliche-filled saga about the rise and fall of one ogre-ish plantation owner -- no more, no less.

Does it cause us to see things in a different light? Not at all. August's distillation is so spartan and uninspired that he does not even transcend the routine forms of the story's soap-operatic formula. The dialogue itself, perhaps suffering in the translation from Spanish to Danish to English, clanks at daytime TV level, and overall, the few instances of magical realism seem so incongruous that they are sometimes unintentionally funny.

No fault to the fine actors assembled. Streep, in particular, brings a refreshing breeziness to her portrayal, but the others, despite their talents and outstanding interpretations, cannot transcend the earthbound nature of August's dour directorial hand.



Producer Bernd Cichinger

Screenwriter/director Bille August

Director of photography Jorgen Persson

Production designer Anna Asp

Costume designer Barbara Baum

Music Hans Zimmer


Esteban Trueba Jeremy Irons

Clara Trueba Meryl Streep

Ferula Glenn Close

Blanca Winona Ryder

Nivea Vanessa Redgrave

Transito Mario Conchita Alonso

Severo Armin Mueller-Stahl

Pedro Antonio Banderas

Satigny Jan Niklas

Pancha Sarita Choudury

Segundo Joaquin Martinez

Running time - 138 minutes

No MPAA Rating

(c) The Hollywood Reporter


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