The Bridge over San Luis Rey is not a traditional drama. It is predominantly philosophical; the emotions in the novel and in this film are fleeting. When the characters fall in love, and when they die, we are very quickly drawn away from it. Life is fleeting. This is unlike most dramas where we are given plenty of time to reflect and consider. This movie can leave you behind, both with regard to plot details and these moments of attachment to the characters.
It may feel as though they tried to cram a whole array of interesting characters into a two-hour film. I think that they did, and this is how the story reads - to Brother Jupiter (the story's quasi-narrator) all the characters are "incidental" to him. His investigation (and yours, as a viewer) is to pry into their lives and the intimate details of their biographies. Other reviewers here have complained that the characters "seemed to appear and disappear;" I think this is intentional - Brother Jupiter only gets a vignette into the lives of these people, just as we only have small pieces of the lives of our friends. Have some sympathy, and these characters will truly seem alive.
The point is that this movie requires some effort to be enjoyed; you have to keep up with it. I think, however, that if you are willing to actively try and suspend disbelief and - just as if you were actually reading the novel - try to scry something more from the characters and plot, you will be well-rewarded. The film is remarkable in that it expresses the fact that this was, originally, a novel; I can't expect a novel to simply play itself out before me. This movie is an intellectual adventure.
The movie felt very much like a stage production. There are few attempts to match an accent appropriate to the time and place - which I find most forgivable; they are, after all, speaking English to begin with. The lines are delivered as though the actors were in a play - particularly de Niro's lines. This, too, can take away from one's ability to be easily immersed in the film's experience unless you make the effort.
No one can fault the ability of the director in creating a visually stunning film. The camera, though, was annoying from time to time, particularly in the opening and ending scenes.
The movie did a remarkable job of portraying the relationship between Manuel and Esteban; for having no lines whatsoever, the actors (who I have never seen before) were incredible. Kathy Bates, Harvey Keitel, and F. Murray Abraham are magnificent.
I was not so impressed with Robert de Niro and Gabriel Byrne. Whether this was due to their (difficult) characters, the director's failing to direct, or their own flaws as actors, I don't know. I do think that they were not given enough screen time - which is regrettable. I think that, given the privilege the writer and director had in having these actors, it would have been more than forgivable to take some liberties from the novel just to flesh out these characters and let these actors play for a bit more. Also, Captain Alvarado - though he certainly looks the part, is a bit over the top, in the few scenes he appears.
I don't understand the 1's that reviewers, here, have given this film. The movie is simply not _that_ bad, and I cannot see what possible reasons can bring such a negative conclusion out, other than that people cannot resist the opportunity to make pithy remarks about a movie in which the main characters fall off a bridge. Take such reviews with a grain of salt, and when you watch the movie, try a little.