½*/**** Image A Sound A
starring F. Murray Abraham, Gabriel Byrne, Geraldine Chaplin, Robert De Niro
screenplay by Mary McGuckian, based on the novel by Thornton Wilder
directed by Mary McGuckian
by Walter Chaw Given its cast as well as its presumption to chart the hazy intersection between predestination and circumstance, Mary McGuckian's excruciatingly dull The Bridge of San Luis Rey, the third adaptation of Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, might be the biggest miscalculation of the year. Start with Robert De Niro as the corrupt Archbishop of Lima, presiding over the inquisition of Brother Juniper (Gabriel Byrne). Six years previous Juniper witnessed the unceremonious snapping of the titular bridge, which sent five random people to their howling doom. Had they known how boring our good brown-robed pilgrim would make them out to be, I wouldn't wonder why they didn't try to float. No, Brother Juniper has decided that he's going to write the world's dullest book about this quintet of unfortunates so as to perhaps accidentally ken the mysterious workings of the Almighty in the small lives of small people.
With that as the framing story, McGuckian continues to cull the fringes of the 1974 A-list with Harvey Keitel as another Brooklyn-ese Peruvian, impresario Uncle Pio, who creates a monster in the spicy Camila (Pilar Lopez de Ayala) while courting the patronage of the Viceroy of Peru (F. Murray Abraham!). (The viceroy, of course, falls in love with Camila.) This howlingly hilarious storyline intersects with another when Camila, full of herself, mocks the wealthy (but pathetic) Marquesa de Montemayor (would you believe Kathy Bates?) during a performance--though we know that the Marquesa, for all her faults, is a heartbroken woman because of the betrayal of her daughter Clara (Émilie Dequenne). Dequenne is so godawful here, by the way, that it's never entirely clear what Clara's motives are in destroying her doting mother. Then there's the Archbishop's coercion of the Abbess (Geraldine freakin' Chaplin) to find the Marquesa a lady-in-waiting companion for her loneliness (Adriana Dominguez). And lest we forget, the Polish Brothers (Mark and Michael) appear as twins, one of whom is also in love with Camila, leading one or the other or both trying to kill himself/themselves. These two, by the way, were raised by the Archbishop and Uncle Pio. Ah, Peru: small country.
Somewhere in the middle of the two-plus hours, you stop wondering which of these characters is going to be killed by the bridge and start hoping that all of them are--soon. It's not spite that impels this skylark, but self-preservation and that breed of desperation that comes once you realize you're trapped in the audience for a film that genuinely has no idea what it's doing. The performances are uniformly terrible (while De Niro is many things, the Archbishop of Peru is not among them), and the narrative is so aimless and ass-backwards that it's not just impossible to follow, it's difficult to care. The Bridge of San Luis Rey looks pretty good, what with lush cinematography courtesy Javier Aguirresarobe, but that technical proficiency only serves to throw into harsher relief the bald uselessness of McGuckian's screenplay adaptation and a casting job that makes the whole thing play like some perplexing parody. Any questions about design vs. caprice, in fact, are better asked of the film itself; and in the asking, find the answer veering towards a really bad accident. If nothing else, the picture is the textbook example of how to reunite De Niro and Keitel and still only open in a handful of theatres before going, essentially, directly to video--of how to turn an embarrassment of riches into an embarrassment, period.
New Line turns their typically competent eye towards The Bridge of San Luis Rey with an expensive-looking audio/visual presentation. The costumes, the lighting--a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer preserves it all impeccably. I didn't detect much in the way of edge enhancement, and the slight mutedness of the outdoor scenes in comparison to the interiors is probably indicative of the cinematography as opposed to any flaws in the authoring. As the interiority of the piece is of primary import, I'm not making a big deal out of it besides. What surprises are the two 5.1 listening options inscribed on the disc: the standard DD track is excellent, but the DTS-encoded 5.1 audio really creates a sense of space, particularly in the Archbishop's cathedral and, later, in the theatre scene in which the Marquesa is humiliated. Catch yourself glancing around to shush your fellow moviegoers. When the soundtrack swells, too--man oh man. Oddly enough, The Bridge of San Luis Rey's trailer (the disc's only extra feature) does a more comprehensive job of telling the story than the film itself does. Originally published: December 15, 2005.