Don Quixote lives, in the guise of a former Python who has conjured Cervantes' immortal knight errant as a filmmaker who tilts at windmills and proclaims fantasy to be a preferable mode of survival in a jaded world.
After three decades of failed attempts and false starts, director Terry Gilliam's film adaptation of the Quixote legend has finally reached U.S. screens. Part of what makes "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote" (opening Friday) both a pleasure and a relief is the production's darkened history. After years of planning, his first attempt to shoot a version of this film, in 2000, starred Johnny Depp and Jean Rochefort, but was plagued by storms that wrecked sets, and an injury that sent Rochefort to the hospital for surgery. Production was shut down within a week when the film's financiers pulled out, leaving Gilliam bereft of cast or crew. A marvelously depressing documentary, "Lost in La Mancha," recounted Gilliam's travails, and its fragments of footage at least hinted at the story he was attempting to tell.
After several on-and-off attempts with new financiers and stars, Gilliam has now managed to complete a revision of his original screenplay with stars Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce (who starred in Gilliam's classic "Brazil"). Not a literal retelling of the 1605 novel, "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote" is a meditation on celebrity, moral responsibility, hubris, ambition and madness, with a character whose delusions are in some way ennobling to others.
Driver plays Toby, a hot-shot commercial director at work on an ad campaign in the deserts of Spain, where he had many years earlier shot a student film of "Don Quixote," one that made his reputation and, it appears, ruined several lives. The ancient shoemaker whose look attracted Toby to cast him as Quixote, Javier (Pryce), has in the intervening years come to believe he is the real Quixote, wielding weapons and attacking windmills he takes for giants marauding the land while vowing fealty to his love, Dulcinea. Toby also encounters Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), the young village girl who enchanted him and his camera when he was a novice filmmaker, but whose subsequent pursuit of acting fame landed her in the unenviable role of a Russian oligarch's kept woman.
Once reunited with Toby, the old man takes the young director to be his squire, Sancho Panza, a sidekick whose role in life seems to be continuous but failed attempts at talking sense into his master.
The contemporary setting of the film, as well as the distortions in time brought by film flashbacks, memory and non-drug-induced hallucinations, create a plausible backdrop for the character's madness. But the madness of Quixote is not what truly fascinates Gilliam; he is more interested in the repercussions on others who fall under Quixote's spell, and what effect his singular view of the universe has on people who may be more myopic about their place in the world.
Quixote, and Sancho, are the latest in a long string of Gilliam characters who share a fascination with fantasy and madness. In "The Fisher King" the homeless man played by Robin Williams has visions of medieval grandeur in New York City, which his companion (Jeff Bridges) comes to accept and even act out. Bruce Willis' character in "12 Monkeys" is thought delusional by a psychiatrist, but even she comes to accept his belief that he has traveled through time from the future. And most conspicuously, "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" features an aged storyteller of magical untruths who conscripts a grounded young girl on his travels to the moon and back.
Toby's journey with Quixote becomes a journey into his past, and a reckoning with how his ambitions have cast long shadows affecting the lives of others. Falling into a dream state, in which he begins to see the world as the romantic Quixote sees it, is a wake-up call for Toby – for the first time he accepts moral responsibility for his actions.
Co-written with Tony Grisoni, "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote" may be the quintessential Gilliam film – an imaginative, fantastical take on the world blending mischievous performances, sly humor, ribald slapstick, evocative design and camerawork, anti-authoritarianism, and a dollop of political commentary. Added to the mix is an appreciation of the look and rhythms of rural Spain, where a flamenco dance can turn into a (well-deserved) slap fest, and the ruins of a long-lost era come alive once again with pageantry, all at the service of a time-honored truth: self-delusion is an evolutionary human trait. Also: pointed jokes about the mechanics and formalities of filmmaking, including the conventions of movie subtitles.
Driver gives an excellent performance as Toby, making an egotistical, dislikable character involving. Donning Gabriella Pescucci's original, terrific Quixote costume from the shuttered 2000 film shoot, which looks concocted out of spare parts and detritus, Pryce is terrific as a man who finds his true self "playing" another identity; in his fantasy he sees the truths in others that they are blind to. It's a trait that the world needs more of.
And since Gilliam often directs films in which the protagonist is a stand-in for himself (be it a mythmaker, a knight on a quest, or a man crushed by an uncaring bureaucracy), he can finally, rightfully take his place as cinema's Quixote, who has titled at windmills just long enough to conquer them.
Technical credits, from the costumes by Lena Mossum to the camerawork of Nicola Pecorini and Roque Baños' score, are top-notch, because a passion project this long in the works inspires others, like Quixote, to up their game.
"The Man Who Killed Don Quixote," distributed by Screen Media, opens in select cities (including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Austin, Kansas City and Phoenix) on April 19, and expands to other cities in May; the film is also available on VOD. Rated PG-13, for adult situations and language. 132 mins.
To watch a trailer for "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote" click on the video player below.