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Lost In La Mancha

TIFF [2002]Go to Festival index

Capsule Review Only

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At once an intimate portrait of a dedicated cinematic genius and a madcap comedy of outrageous cosmic errors, “Lost In La Mancha” is the heartbreaking story of Terry Gilliam’s doom-laden attempt to bring his dream project, Cervantes’ tale of Don Quixote, to the screen in his trademarked epic/absurdist fashion.

Still regarded as an megalomaniac/spendthrift after the failure of his “The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen” (despite the impressive returns of his studio-funded follow-ups “The Fisher King” and “12 Monkeys”), Gilliam secures European funding for “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”, thanks largely to the signing of Johnny Depp to the lead role of an executive who travels back in time and is mistaken for Quixote’s assistant Sancho Panza. French actor Jean Rochefort has been learning English for his pivotal role as Quixote. Underway is the challenge of translating the director’s extravagant designs into sets, costumes, and locations within a meager budget (although enormous by European standards) and near-impossible time frame Gilliam hasn’t wrestled with since his early “Monty Python” days.

From day one of shooting, everything goes wrong. The first location is situated next to a NATO airbase, making it impossible to record dialogue. Then, the location is destroyed by a flash flood of Old Testament proportions. Equipment is damaged, valuable shooting time lost, and wouldn’t you know it, Gilliam’s insurance doesn’t cover such incidents of “force majeur”.

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Then, Rochefort experiences discomfort while sitting on his horse and returns home for medical tests. The producers contemplate firing Gilliam’s long-time and trusted First Assistant Director. The investors themselves come to the set as part of a bus-tour to ensure their money is being well spent, and Gilliam shills by posing for pictures, and having Depp sign autographs. A makeshift soundstage location is too small and as noisy as a munitions factory. Then, the worst is confirmed: Rochefort requires prostate surgery and will not be returning to the production.

Filmmakers Fulton and Pepe had previously chronicled the making of “12 Monkeys” and were granted full-access to every stage of this new production. What resulted, of course, is a documentary filmmaker’s wet dream. “La Mancha” is often uncomfortably candid—when Gilliam doubts the seriousness of Rochefort’s health concerns and vows that he’s going to “kill” the actor, and there’s no doubt that he means it. And being a documentary on Gilliam, of course the film is expected be visually inventive as well and is, embellished with live script readings and animated storyboards that mimic the filmmaker’s whimsical bits for Python. An added treat is the inclusion of rare footage from Orson Welles’ own equally ill-fated attempt to film Quixote (at one point, Gilliam compares the Quixote jinx to that of “The Scottish Play”).

A significant moment comes when co writer Tony Grisomi compares Gilliam to Quixote himself: a “mad” old man empowered by his rich delusional fantasy life, only to die when he regains sanity and cannot cope with the sudden exposure to reality. But when the film is shut down, Gilliam doesn’t allow his vision to perish. He immediately dedicates himself to regaining the rights to his property and climb back on Quixote’s horse Rocinante once again. The best thing about “La Mancha” is how it leaves the viewer with an inflated respect for Gilliam, who never once seems out of control or irrational (in fact, he’s often serenely practical), and for the alchemy of filmmaking process, which is, after all, a “business” as well as an “art”, and sadly, subject to the realities of finance, nature, and the frailties of the human body like any other.

During the post-screening Q&A, in which we were all delighted to find Gilliam in attendance and in good spirits (but he didn’t watch the film, too painful), the director announced that while all of the props had been sold off by investors, the script would soon be his again and he was jazzed on resurrecting the project. He also requested that we check out another Jean Rochefort film playing at the festival to assure him that the actor is, in fact, “seated’ throughout his entire performance.

- Robert L

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