At the beginning of ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,’ text on-screen proclaims that what we are about to see has been “25 years in the making.” It might be even longer than that.
Terry Gilliam has been tilting at this particular windmill since its eventual star, Adam Driver, was in elementary school. (It’s not Driver who plays the Knight of Doleful Countenance, by the way, but Gilliam stalwart Jonathan Pryce.) The legends surrounding the project have made ‘Quixote’ one of the great films maudits of our time; a documentary on its failure to come to fruition appeared way back in 2003.
All of that has perhaps created outsized expectations. Surely a movie so long in gestation, inspired by a doorstop-thick novel that has beguiled and baffled readers for several centuries, would turn out to be either a world-class catastrophe or a world-historical masterpiece.
With a mixture of relief and regret, I must report that the movie is neither. ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’ has moments of slackness and chaos (the book does, too), but for the most part it’s a lively, charming excursion into a landscape claimed by Gilliam in the name of Miguel de Cervantes, the Spanish gentleman who gave Don Quixote life back in the early 1600s. The filmmaker’s devotion to the novelist adds lustre and vigour to the images, but this is more than just an act of literary-minded reverence. It’s a meeting of minds — a celebration of artistic kinship across the gulfs of history, culture and technology.
Gilliam, like Cervantes, is a wily inventor who also serves as an analyst and evangelist of the imagination. In his most successful movies — ‘Brazil,’ ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,’ ‘The Fisher King,’ ‘Twelve Monkeys’ — imagination is a mighty force and a fragile vessel. Art is a heroic expression of will even as it also stands as poor compensation for human frailty. The only hope is to dream, which is also a kind of doom.
The line between fantasy and reality isn’t crossed. It’s looped into knots, twists and tangles. ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’ is most fantastical when it’s most literal, and vice versa, and like the novel (the second volume in particular) it enfolds layers of self-consciousness into its comic tale of epic adventure.
Driver is Toby, a filmmaker whose early promise has been frittered away in a series of compromises. We first meet him on set in Spain, shooting a commercial with a Don Quixote theme. He’s bullied by his boss (Stellan Skarsgard), hit on by the boss’ wife (Olga Kurylenko) and harassed by his agent, crew members and his own uneasy conscience. A decade earlier, we learn, Toby was in a nearby village working on the student film — an arty, black-and-white ‘Quixote’ — that made his reputation. He cast local people in the roles of Quixote, Sancho Panza and Dulcinea, and he returns to discover that he ruined their lives.
A shoemaker named Javier (Pryce, dishing up the jamon) is now convinced that he really is Don Quixote. The original Don Quixote suffered from a similar affliction, traipsing through a Spain that was already, at the turn of the 17th century, too modern for his old-school chivalric personality. Not a lot has changed, and the measure of Gilliam’s ingenuity is his ability to suggest that Quixotism is a universal, transhistorical condition. The ratios of magic to meanness, of ugliness to beauty, of virtue to vice don’t really change. The world has always been an awful place with the potential to be made wonderful by the right kind of inspiration.
If Javier’s delusions supply the inspiration, some of the awfulness is suggested by the fate of Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), an innkeeper’s daughter who first encountered Toby and his camera when she was just a teenager. Dazzled by dreams of show-business glory, Angelica made her way to the big city, and is now the girlfriend of a vulgar and sadistic Russian billionaire (Jordi Molla).
Javier and Toby become Don Quixote and Sancho, and their surroundings oblige them by supporting the illusion. It’s Holy Week, which means that the Spanish countryside is full of religious processions and people in costume. Hallucinations come to life, and real life takes on surreal qualities, leading up to a climactic fancy-dress ball.
The story doesn’t follow Cervantes in every detail, but there is no mistaking Gilliam’s deep appreciation of the book. ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’ works best as an exuberant, not always disciplined work of critical appropriation. Like other recent Gilliam films, it often jumbles spectacle and sense, and fumbles some important emotions. Driver, a wondrously subtle and startlingly emphatic actor, is too often reduced to yelling and waving his arms, and the more delicate notes of longing, nostalgia and wonder that should drive the story are drowned out by clatter. The romanticism has a creepy side.
But ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’ ultimately succeeds by failing to live up to its title. Instead, it testifies to the vitality of an archetype embodied in different ways by Toby, Gilliam and the Man of La Mancha himself: the fool who mistakes his blundering errand for a sacred quest.
Don’t miss it!
‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’ releases in the UAE on May 2.