Bridge of San Luis Rey, The (2014)

Directed by  Mary McGuckian and featuring a high-profile cast of international actors, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, based on Thornton Wilder’s novel, was both an artistic and commercial flop.

Set in Lima, Peru, on Friday, 20 July 1714, a bridge built by the Incas a century earlier collapsed, while five people were crossing it: Doña María, the Marquess of Montemayor; Pepita, her lady in attendance; Esteban, a scribe; Uncle Pío and a young child.

The collapse was witnessed by Brother Juniper, a Franciscan monk, who was on his way to cross it. Curious about why God would allow such a tragedy, he decides to take a scientific approach to the question. He set out to interview everyone who knew the five victims. Over the course of six years, he compiles a book, coming to the question whether we live our lives according to a plan or if there is no such thing as a bigger scheme.

 The tale starts at a public hearing of a council led by Diego de Parada, the Archbishop of Lima (De Niro). Brother Juniper (Byrne) defends his work and his conclusions to the Inquisition, trying to assess whether the people who died were worthy or unworthy of suffering such a tragedy. He analyses the lives of four of the characters and the film flashes back and forth between the hearing and the events that lead to the tragedy.

Doña María, the Marquess of Montemayor (Kathy Bates), an eccentric but wealthy woman, is vexed by the fact that her only daughter, Clara, whom she loves dearly, is indifferent to her. The latter married a Spanish nobleman and moved across the ocean. Doña María visits her daughter, but when they cannot get along, she returns to Lima. The only way that they can communicate comfortably is by letter, and Doña María pours her heart into her writing, which becomes so polished that her letters will be read in schools for hundreds of years after her death. Doña María takes Pepita as her companion, a girl raised at the Convent of Santa María Rosa de las Rosas, after a recommendation by the Inquisition that her strange behavior might be lessened if she was not alone all the time.

Esteban and Manuel are twins who were left at the Convent of Santa María Rosa de las Rosas as infants. The Abbess of the convent, Madre María del Pilar (Chaplin), developed a fondness for them as they grew up. They are so close that they have developed a secret language that only they understand. After they are dismissed from the Archbishop’s household, they become scribes and they write notes for actress Micaela Villegas, La Perricholi, who writes to her lover, Manuel de Amat y Juniet, Viceroy of Peruand to a bullfighter. Manuel falls in love with La Perricholi, which strains his relationship with his twin. After they are dismissed by La Perricholi, both brothers work a job as stevedores for Captain Alvarado. During work Manuel suffers an accident which ends in a grave injury which will ultimately cause his death.

Uncle Pío (Keitel) found La Perricholi as a girl and nourished her into a full-fledged actress, he acts as her singing-master, coiffeur, masseur, reader, errand-boy, banker and, rumor added: her father. Although he is in love with her, he has never expressed his feelings, which might or might not be reciprocated by her. He has had just three interests in the world: independence; the constant presence of beautiful women; and work with the masterpieces of Spanish literature, particularly in the theater. He is witness to La Perricholi’s affair with the Viceroy and the bullfighter and her bearing a child to the Viceroy much to his dismay but despite of this and that due to La Perricholi’s absence from the theatre, his company is forced to close, he remains faithful to her.

The Marquess of Montemayor learns that her daughter in Spain is pregnant and decides to make a pilgrimage to the shrine of Santa María de Cluxambuqua. Pepita goes along as company and to supervise the staff. Captain Alvarado, who has saved Esteban from suicide, hires him to sail with him. A small-pox epidemic sweeps through Lima and La Perricholi goes missing, Uncle Pío goes after her when learning from the Viceroy that she will receive no one at her home and he suspects that the sickness has struck her. She has taken her son, Jaime, who will be the fifth victim of the tragedy, with her. After Uncle Pío finally succeeds in seeing her, he convinces her to let him take the boy to a better education, which she agrees.

When Doña María is out at the shrine, Pepita stays at the inn and writes a letter to the Abbess complaining about her misery and loneliness. Doña María reads the letter and compliments Pepita about its beauty but she rebuts that it was not brave to write it. Doña María has new insight into the ways in which her own life have lacked bravery and proceeds to write her most famous letter “Letter LVI”, which by all accounts has become immortal and has been even compared to St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, due to its bravery and definitions of love.

When all five characters are heading back to Lima, the bridge breaks and all fall to their deaths.

The story shifts back to the hearing. The Abbess and La Perricholi appear at the hearing, but they are refused after the Viceroy denies knowing or recognizing the former actress, after seeing her face destroyed by smallpox, and because the actress he knew had no love in her eyes (whereas the nun is blazing with love). The Archbishop pronounces Juniper’s work a heresy, and the book and its author are burned in the town square.

The film ends with the Abbess’s observation: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

The film and novel are loosely based on the life of Micaela Villegas (1748—1819), a Peruvian entertainer known as La Perricholi, whose life was also the inspiration for the novella Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement by Prosper Mérimée, an opéra bouffe, La Périchole by Jacques Offenbach, Jean Renoir’s 1953 The Golden Coach, and two earlier film versions: a 1929 silent version, The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1929) starring Lili Damita, and a 1944 version, The Bridge of San Luis Rey starring Lynn Bari, Francis Lederer, Akim Tamiroff, and Alla Nazimova.

The 2004 film was shot on location in Málaga, Andalucía, and Toledo, Castilla-La Mancha, Spain.


F. Murray Abraham as Viceroy of Peru.

Kathy Bates as The Marquesa

Gabriel Byrne as Brother Juniper

Geraldine Chaplin as The Abbess

Robert De Niro as Archbishop of Lima.

Harvey Keitel as Uncle Pio