Thornton Wilder's famed novel has been filmed three times, including this one. The story is interesting and its ideas on religion and corruption are certainly timely. Brother Juniper (Gabriel Byrne, wasted as a pointless framing device) has recently collected data and put it into a book about five souls who lost their lives when the Bridge of San Luis Rey collapsed. The book implicates a bit of a conspiracy concerning the bridge's collapse, but the Archbishop of Peru (Robert De Niro) sustains that it was an act of the devil and that Brother Juniper, and his book, are calculating heathens. Most of the film is a flashback to the events leading up to the bridge's failure, mainly concerning the wealthy Marquesa (Kathy Bates), a young actress Dona Clara (Émilie Dequenne), and their relationship with the Viceroy of Peru (F. Murray Abraham). The Viceroy has impregnated Dona Clara and is a bold faced hypocrite for first shunning the Marquesa and then making Dona show her respect and humility. The only one who seems to really care about the poor actress is Uncle Pio (Harvey Keitel), the head of the acting troupe that Dona Clara is in. The film leads up to both the breaking of the bridge and the court's judgment of Brother Juniper. Neither goes well, as you might imagine.
So, why is this film so bad? There are a lot of reasons. The film wants too much, packing in at least seven or eight stories that could be their own great films alone. The forcing of them all into a two hour block of time makes the characters seem flat and lacks any time for us to establish an emotional connection to them. Robert Altman and P.T Anderson do films with several stories, but they connect in such unexpected and beautiful ways, and the characters are given time to breathe and become unique and compelling. In McGuckian's film, we know the pattern of the story and we know each character's role in the story in such a rehearsed way that even if any character is detailed well, they don't matter to us as more than a plot device. To make matters worse, the conspiracy that is implied is only implied. We never feel paranoid or scared by the forces above, and, to be honest, we don't even feel contempt for the Viceroy or the Archbishop. The characters are so flat and inconsequential that we just watch them, waiting for a break in the monotony. The film's ultimate crime is that we simply don't care about anyone or anything in the story and for that you can blame McGuckian twice, since she wrote it as well.
Earlier this year, I went to a sneak preview of F. Gary Gray's Be Cool, the sequel to Barry Sonnenfeld's feisty, fantastic Get Shorty. Walking out of the theater, I claimed it the worst film of the year to a long-time friend who agreed with me on the spot. At the end of this film I realized that Be Cool doesn't deserve that honor; it's too goofy and aware of itself to be a true atrocity. This is, at the moment, the worst film of the year because of how seriously it takes itself and how important it wants to be. McGuckian wants us to see it as The Age of Innocence, House of Mirth, and Children of Paradise without having the lyrical poetry and deep emotional core that those films invested in. It's a fraud of the highest order.
Run time: 120 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 22nd December 2004
Distributed by: Fine Line Features
Contactmusic.com: 1 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 4%
Fresh: 1 Rotten: 23
IMDB: 5.1 / 10
Director: Mary McGuckian
Screenwriter: Mary McGuckian
Starring: F. Murray Abraham as Viceroy of Peru, Kathy Bates as The Marquesa, Gabriel Byrne as Brother Juniper, Geraldine Chaplin as The Abbess, Robert De Niro as Archbishop of Peru, Adriana Dominques as Pepita, Harvey Keitel as Uncle Pio, Samuel Le Bihan as Dona Clara's Husband