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An ancient Inca rope bridge spanning a chasm in the Peruvian Andes collapses, sending five travelers to their deaths in the gorge below. A monk who was nearby, Father Juniper, decides to investigate the lives of those who died in order to see if the tragedy was a result of chance or some divine plan. Written by
Talky Character Study Slow Going But Ultimately Rewarding
Thorton Wilder's novel of 18th Century Peru, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, translates to the screen as a rather slow moving, talky picture. Certainly not amongst the best examples of the 1940's classic period, but not as bad some critics have made it out. Production values are mediocre, and the story more philosophical than exciting. It is worth sticking with, however, for the acting and the intelligent script. An Accademy Award nominated score by the superb Dimitri Tiomkin helps out immensely.
The importance of old silent movie has-been Alla Nazimova in the scheme of this picture has been rather exaggerated by her ardent fans. She is good in a supporting role, but she hardly dominates the movie. Lynn Bari, the leading lady, is excellent as the social-climbing actress Michaela, around whom most of the plot revolves. Francis Lederer, who in the next decade would take a turn at the Dracula role, carries a big load in a dual role as twin brothers, one a dashing sea captain, the other a depressed scribe. But this movie really belongs to veteran character actors Louis Calhern as the Viceroy who is in love with Michaela, and Akim Tamiroff as Uncle Pio, Michaela' manager and the Viceroy's confidant-spy. The witty, literate exchanges between these two is the most amusing aspect of the movie.
Admittedly this movie is not for every taste. The dialog is going to be too literary and too self-consciously philosophical for most viewers. Every character in this story is a prodigy of philosophy, continually thinking on and talking on what his or her life is all about and what God must think of it. Some find the futility of seeking after life's treasures, other find redemption. The story is structured entirely in flashbacks starting from the tragic collapse of a bridge in the opening reel and the efforts of a faithful monk to learn why God willed it so. Flashbacks, though a tried and true story-telling device probably predating literature, seem to irritate some people, but the structure works well in this one. The story picks up steam in the second half, then neatly folds the end into a resolution which satisfies both drama and philosophy.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey is not top-notch entertainment, but has its rewarding moments if you are in the right mood.
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