House of the Spirits: Misfire–Bille August Directs All-Star (Miscast)

I find it peculiar that Isabel Allende, the internationally known author, is promoting Miramax’s new film, The House of the Spirit, based on her novel of the same title.

A week ago, she recalled, in a L.A. Times interview, how she had dismissed Danish director Bille August’s screen adaptation. I read the book in the late l980s, when a Chilean student of mine at Wellesley gave it to me. I liked the book, though didn’t think it was a great one. Still, I could see what made the novel a best-seller in so many languages.

However, as a movie, House of the Spirits is a major fiasco: Everything that could have gone wrong in this misconceived international production did: the conception, writing, visual style, and above all casting.

Nothing in Bille Auguste’s previous work suggests that he could handle such epic material. He did a remarkable job with Pelle the Conqueror, which won the l988 Best Foreign Picture Oscar and featured a touching performance by Max Von Sydow. In l992, Auguste distinguished himself again with the intimate drama The Best Intentions, based on Ingmar Bergman’s personal scenario.

But in House of the Spirits, as writer and director Auguste can’t reconcile the requirements of a big sweeping political epic with those of an intimate drama. The end result is a dismal soap opera that covers half a century and just jumps from one era to another without leaving any impact. Shot in Portugal, this three-generational saga fails to convey either the personal or political turmoil in an unnamed South American country, which is actually modeled on Allende’s native Chile. The novelist’s uncle, Salvador Allende, was driven from power in Chile in a coup.

There has been a lot of publicity over the glamorous ensemble; after all, not many films can boast Jeremy Irons, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Winona Ryder, Antonio Banderas, and Vanessa Redgrave in their casts. But ironically, none of the performers acquits himself with decent acting, and their collective efforts add up to very little.

In the lead role, Jeremy Irons comes off worst. Irons is a fabulously elegant British actor, but to cast him as a macho South American oligarch, who rapes girls, ignores his illegitimate son, abuses his family, and domineers his wife is more than a stretch of the imagination. Glenn Close, as Irons’ repressed sister, and Meryl Streep, as his ethereal wife, have a few good moments, but it’s not enough to sustain such a long and messy movie.

Unfortunately, as soon as the story builds up some momentum, there’s voice-over narration by Blanca (Winona Ryder), the daughter of the film’s main characters, who is in love with a revolutionary peasant (Antonio Banderas). And unlike the great Mexican fantasy, Like Water for Chocolate, this movie also fails to integrate its magical realism into the narrative; Clara’s psychic and clairvoyant powers just seem bizarre.

Perhaps the only way for a novel like The House of the Spirits to have been effectively adapted to the screen was as a television’s mini-series.