The House of the Spirits
Conchita Alonso film clip (collage below)
Choudhury film clip (collage below)
Polo film clip (sample below)
Ryder film clip (collage below)
I hate this movie.
Gene Siskel used to say that there are certain
rules to determine if a story has merit. For
example, the character development stinks if the
plot is actually less interesting than it would be
to have a dinner conversation with the characters.
I have my own such rules:
1. The story stinks if I could have written it.
This is true for two reasons. First, I have no
talent. Second, if I could have written it, it
sure isn't going to surprise me much, is it?
2. The story really stinks if I could have written
it in less than an hour.
In fact, I would say the following as a near
certainly. If I gave you the cast and budget of
this film, you could not make a worse movie than
this, no matter what you did. If I could have
given this cast and budget to Ed Wood, he would
have done better. This is, therefore, the worst
possible movie that could have been made, given
this star-studded cast, and deserves a special
place in the Hall of Shame. Mind you, it is
certainly not the worst movie ever made. You could
make a far worse one, and people have done so. But
if you could level the playing field and give
everyone the same cast and budget, this may be the
worst movie ever made from the available material.
The plot is a complete cliché. If Ed Wood wanted
to write a big, sweeping, lurid mini-series about
Latin America, this is exactly what he would have
written, complete with multi-generational sweep.
The rich landowner's daughter falls in love with
the revolutionary who wants to overthrow the class
of people represented by her father. The landowner
says that the people are children and have to be
treated as such. The revolutionary's father is the
landowner's trusted foreman. The landowner rapes
all the peasant girls, including one who appears
to have come from India - not sure what she was
doing there. One of his bastard sons turns out to
be the right-wing Colonel who talks like he came
from a mob family in upstate New York, and who
tortures his own half-sister in order to get
information about her revolutionary boyfriend.
Every single character is a cartoon, and there is
no effort made to develop any of them as
well-rounded individuals, although the landowner
does sort of make a half-hearted attempt at
deathbed reformation in the last couple of
minutes, as evil movie landowners are wont to do.
Every plot twist is unbelievable. Not just one
here and there, but every one. In addition to all
the incestuous coincidences between the
characters, consider some of the following:
When the landowner
was a young man, he was told that he couldn't
marry the girl of his dreams unless he got
rich. No problem. He went out and found a
gold mine. There are always plenty of those
When he returns with
his wealth to find that his girl has died of Ali
McGraw's Disease. He retires to the hills for
twenty years. The girl's younger sister, who is
a psychic and secretly in love with him, becomes
mute and will not speak for those twenty years,
until he comes down from the hills and proposes
The characters tell
blatant lies to one another, but none of them
ever think to verify the facts. The landowner's
sister, who is a loony spinster well known as
the village idiot, tells him that the doctor
said he should not sleep with his wife any more.
Now if your sister was a well known village
idiot, and she told you something like that,
would you believe it and stop making love to
your wife, or would you ask the doctor if that
really was his recommendation? Mr Landowner
simply decided not to sleep with his wife any
In one scene, the old
landowner is trying to kill the young
revolutionary while he sleeps in a barn unarmed.
He has the barrel of the rifle about three
inches from the revolutionary's skull. You'd
think it would be curtains for the young fella,
eh? Nope. First a noise outside startles the old
guy and simultaneously awakens the young guy. So
he never gets that point-blank shot off, but he
still has the rifle in a closed barn, and he's a
guy who never misses a squirrel at 100 yards.
Apparently, despite appearances to the contrary,
the young revolutionary is smaller and faster
and trickier than a squirrel, and manages to
avoid enough rifle fire to kill the entire
population of Latin America. By the way, it
seemed apparent in this scene that they were, in
fact, hoping to make a TV mini-series, and that
Episode 1 was supposed to stop while the
landowner had the rifle on the revolutionary's
head, and the announcer was supposed to come in
and say "same bat-time, same bat-channel"
The acting is weak. Given the fact that these are
some of the best actors in the world, if you
directed a film starring them, even though you
don't know jack about directing, these people
would all do better than they did in this movie.
Again it seems fair to say that this the worst
possible acting you could get out of this group of
It features an incredibly over-enunciated and
sentimentalized faux-sensitive narration as if it
was delivered by a very pretentious mother reading
her children a bedtime story. Here's a tip for you
youngsters. If you're going to write a detective
noir for a character like Sam Spade or Philip
Marlowe, then a narrator is de rigueur. Otherwise,
try to use the characters and action to tell the
story you want to tell. The magic of film is that
you have music and dialogue and pictures to tell
your story, and don't need to read the book out
loud. Sometimes an extra layer of narration can
further the depth of the story, as in The Princess
Bride, but mostly it's just a sign that you don't
know what the hell you are doing with the
dialogue, words, and pictures.
The conventions are inconsistent. It is supposed
to be about the Spanish part of Latin America,
right? So the people should be speaking Spanish.
Of course, the movie is in English, so they need
some convention to represent Spanish. Some
characters speak English with an American accent.
Others speak English with a Spanish accent. Others
speak English with a Mexican accent. One of the
soldiers speaks English with a germanic accent of
some kind, maybe Swedish. Vincent Gallo speaks
with his typical idiosyncratic accent, namely an
impersonation of Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle.
Meryl Streep and Winona Ryder chose to use the
official over-enunciated Madonna accent, whatever
that is (a cross between British and Esperanto, I
think). Poor Jeremy Irons was totally confused.
They told him the movie was about South America,
and he thought that meant the Confederacy. Hey,
they also had abusive plantation owners, so I
could see why he got confused and ended up playing
a patriarchal landbaron from Missourah instead of
Argentina. We end up with a curious situation
where the British Irons chose to shelve his
natural accent and speak with an American one in
order to sound more South American, and the
Americans chose not to speak with their natural
American accents, presumably so they would sound
more South American.
This is supposedly a realistic melodrama, yet one
of the characters has psychic powers - always a
personal favorite of mine - she even tells guys
which horse to bet on the next day! Oh, yeah, and
she can levitate furniture as well. Thankfully,
the scriptwriter realized that this was leading in
an awkward direction. Although the story focuses
on this for the first twenty minutes, the author
wisely chose to drop it deep into the background,
and eventually made it a dead end.
I watched through this thing, wondering why all
the passion and romance was told in a tone both
dispassionate and unromantic, and why half of the
movie takes place on deathbeds, as if it were all
written and directed by Ingmar Bergman instead of
a Latin American. Then I realized that it was, in
a sense. The director of this film is a Danish
guy, Bille August, who had just come from
directing The Best Intentions, which was actually
written by Bergman himself! So Bergman's spirit
was the only one really in that house. In addition
to directing The House of the Spirits, August also
wrote the screenplay, therefore making sure that
as little as possible of the original spirit would
creep in accidentally. It was written by a real
Latin American, Isabel Allende, niece of the
former Chilean presidente.
I guess a lot of this was actually filmed in
Denmark, based on the credits (the rest was filmed
in Portugal). At least that explains the whole
White Christmas motif.
Did I mention that it is almost two and a half
It felt like six.