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In early 19th Century Peru an old Inca rope bridge collapses, plunging five travelers to their deaths in the Andean chasm below. Brother Juniper, who was within minutes of being on the bridge himself, becomes obsessed with discovering how five people of differing class and circumstances came to be on the bridge at that moment. The Catholic friar wants to know if it was mere existential happenstance or part of God's cosmic plan. After researching the lives of the victims for five years and publishing his findings in a book, he is accused of heresy by the worldly Archbishop of Lima and is put on trial for his life by the Inquisition. Written by
Thorton Wilder's novel of ruminations about the quality of love and the extremes to which it can be played out is more of a philosophical meditation than a story and this is probably the reason many people feel upended by Mary McGuckian's film, a project she both adapted for the screen and directed. If this film seems a bit on the static side there is a reason: the tale is a testimony before court by Brother Juniper (Gabriel Byrne) about his investigation into the deaths of five people when the rope bridge of San Luis Rey outside Lima, Peru collapsed. Brother Juniper stands before the Archbishop of Peru (Robert De Niro) and the Viceroy of Peru (F. Murray Abraham) and poses the question as to whether the incident was an act of God or just a simple accident.
In order to present his case he has researched the lives of the five who died (mentioning those five would ruin the suspense of the story). We learn about The Marquesa (Kathy Bates) whose daughter has departed for Spain to marry well (the Marquesa is starving for the love of her estranged daughter); the kindhearted Abbess (Geraldine Chaplin) who gives refuge to the unwanted including identical twin men Manuel and Esteban (the mute Mark and Michael Polish) and Pepita (Adriana Domínguez). We also meet Uncle Pio (Harvey Keitel) who serves as a harlequin for the court and raises Camila Villegas AKA La Perichola (Pilar López de Ayala) who loves the stage and the accoutrements more than she loves Uncle Pio. Through the kindness of the Abbess, Pepita is loaned to the Marquesa's household as a surrogate daughter, the twins share their devotion to the court until a tragedy separates them, La Perichola is impregnated by the Viceroy and banned from the city (she raises her little boy, hiding from the world because of her post-partum smallpox disfigurement), and Uncle Pio eventually assumes responsibility of the child out of fatherly love. Five of these people who are true to love's power cross the fateful bridge. Brother Juniper is condemned by the Inquisition for his treason and the meaning of the story is revealed.
The cast is heavy on big names and while they make the most out of the stiff script, they never really touch us the way Wilder's novel characters did. But the trappings of the film are grand and accurately portrayed, the scenery is beautiful, and the costumes are some of the finest period costumes in many a film. This is one of those films that requires careful concentration from the audience, a willingness to not be disturbed by the at times static proscenium stage feeling of the setting, but the rewards of understanding the message are great. There are some fine performances here and the film is definitely worth seeing. It is more demanding than most films - and that is just fine! Grady Harp
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