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Friday, July 3, 2009

The House of the Spirits (1993)


An outstanding multi-generational family saga ...

I love this movie! It has a stellar cast, who give top notch performances. How can you go wrong with Jeremy Irons, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Antonio Banderas, Winona Ryder, Vanessa Redgrave, and Armin Muehler-Stahl? The answer is that you can't. It is a riveting piece of film making, based loosely upon Isabelle Allende's wonderful book of the same name.

The film delicately captures the mysticism of the book, rendering those scenes in which such is the focal point highly believable. This is no mean feat given the subject matter. The story takes place in South America. The saga begins in the nineteen thirties.

Vanessa Redgrave and Armin Muehler-Stahl play the wealthy and liberal parents of two daughters, Rosa and Clara Del Valle. Rosa is the beautiful, older daughter. Clara, played by Meryl Streep's real life daughter, is a lovely child with exceptional, psychic gifts. Jeremy Irons plays the part of Esteban Trueba, an impoverished young man in love with Rosa. Vowing to make his fortune in order to marry her and provide her with the comforts to which she is accustomed, he succeeds in making his fortune. He loses Rosa, however, before being able to marry her, when she drinks poisoned wine intended for her liberal party father.

Esteban, broken hearted, leaves with his fortune and buys an estancia, where he sternly rules with an iron fist over the peasants who work the land for him. They obsequiously refer to him as "Patron". He takes what he wants, even the women, with the expected result. He has a bastard son whom he does not acknowledge.

Esteban has a spinster sister, Ferla, well acted by Glenn Close, who, for the past twenty years, has lived a grim existence in the city with their ailing mother, whom she has taken care of. When their mother dies, Esteban, now a bitter and lonely man, returns to the city from his estancia to attend his mother's funeral. In doing so, he spots Clara, who is now all grown up and ethereally portrayed by the very talented Meryl Streep. Not wasting a moment, he goes to her home. She, luminous, and mystical, already knows that he is there to ask for her hand in marriage and happily accepts. After all, she has loved him ever since she first saw him all those years ago.

Clara lovingly embraces his sister, Ferla, into the bosom of her househould, when they move to her Esteban's estancia. Ferla blossoms from a bitter old maid into a companionable and pleasant woman, under Clara's warmth. Esteban and Clara eventually have a child, Blanca, who grows up playing with Pedro, the son of the estancia's indigenous indian foreperson. When Esteban discovers this, he sends Blanca away to boarding school. He does not want his daughter fraternizing with the peasants.

Clara, loving and pure of heart, is his exact opposite. When their daughter finally grows up and returns home from school, she knows that the independent Blanca, well played by Winona Ryder, has fallen in love with her childhood playmate, Pedro, passionately portrayed by Antonio Banderas. Esteban hates Pedro, as Pedro is a liberal inciting the peasants to unionize and demand their rights, whipping them into a frenzy against the "Patron", or so Esteban sees it. He drives Pedro off his land. He also drives Ferla off, as he believes her to have unatural feelings for his wife, Clara. Possessive to a fault, he is consumed by jealousy. Clara and Esteban have a fight over his cruelties, and she finally leaves him, taking Blanca with her to the Del Valle family home in the city.

Meanwhile, life goes on. Blanca, pregnant by Pedro, has his child, believing that Pedro has been killed by her father. Esteban, representing the wealthy, becomes senator. He reigns for years, until the liberals win power. When they do, however, their tenure is short lived, as a militairy coup sets up a reign of terror and his old sins come home to roost. Meanwhile, Blanca discovers that Pedro is alive, and they joyously hook up again. When Blanca is picked up as a political dissident and tortured for her political views, Esteban, old and broken, is now just a bit player in a larger arena. Too late, he tries to right some wrongs. Some of the wrongs, however, can never be righted.

This is a magnificent, multi-generational family epic, that holds the viewer in its thrall. While it only loosely follows Isabelle Allende's wonderful book of the same name, it is a winner in its own right. It has something for everyone, as it deals with human nature, as well as the complex emotions, forces, and events that shape one. The film is about a family struggling to find its place in our ever changing world, and the relationships that each member of that family forges. It is a rich and vibrant tapestry, which succeeds in capturing the viewer.



The house of the spirits video trailer

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