Monday, January 26, 2009

The Bridge of San Luis Rey

Bridge of San Luis Rey posterThe Bridge of San Luis Rey is loosely based on the life of Micaela Villegas (1748-1819), the famous Peruvian actress nicknamed "La Perichole" or, in Spanish, "La Perrichola," meaning "half-blood bitch." She was the mistress of the Viceroy of Spain from 1761-1776, Manuel de Amat y Juniet. Their son, Manuel de Amat y Villegas, was one of the signers of Peru’s declaration of independence from Spain on July 28, 1821. Her story is the basis for Prosper Mérimée’s comic novella Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement.

Benedict Boegaeus's 1944 version of Villegas's story begins with the collapse of a rope bridge in the Peruvian Andes, which sends the five people who were crossing it plunging to their deaths. Franciscan priest Brother Juniper, whose chapel is nearby, sets out to discover the true story of all those who perished. His quest brings him to Lima, where he sits down with the well-loved Uncle Pio, director of the Lima theatre and close friend of the Viceroy, to get the facts.

The flashback begins with Uncle Pio's adoption of a poor, young Micaela as his protegée in the theatre. He trains her meticulously and she becomes a big star and a favourite of the Viceroy. Meanwhile, her jealous childhood sweetheart Manuel has made her promise to wait for him as he leaves on a sea voyage to Spain. As Micaela grows in the people's and the Viceroy's favour, Uncle Pio manipulates the situation so that she is invited to the Viceroy's court. She is criticized and abused by the women of the court, and leaves in a huff. Eventually, however, the Viceroy wins her over and asks her to be a member of his court. She leaves the theatre and the brokenhearted Uncle Pio to live in the luxury of the Viceroy's Palace. Her only friend among the aristocracy in Lima is a rich Marquesa; but in reality, the Marquesa is manipulating her and the Viceroy in order to undermine the Viceroy's power and put her own daughter's husband in power. When Micaela finds out, she denounces the Marquesa in front of the court. Much to her surprise, the Viceroy, who is in love with her, condemns her actions and orders her to publicly beg the Marquesa's forgiveness. It is here that he calls her "Perrichola," which she takes as a deep insult.

When she apologizes to the Marquesa, Micaela is surprised to discover that the Marquesa has repented from her scheming, evil ways after witnessing her servant, a kind girl from the convent named Pepita, praying for her salvation. Following this confrontation, Manuel suddenly returns from Madrid and sneaks into Micaela's royal apartments to beg her to come back to him. The Viceroy catches the two young lovers red-handed, and he and Manuel challenge each other over Micaela. The Viceroy arrests Manuel, then asks Micaela to marry him. She refuses. Afraid that his anger at her refusal endangers Manuel's life, she goes to Uncle Pio and begs him to help Manuel escape from prison, which he does. When the Viceroy questions Pio about the escape, Pio convinces him to sign a pardon in order to prevent the people making a martyr out of Manuel. Pio then takes the pardon to Manuel, who is hiding on the other side of the Bridge of San Luis Rey. Pio and Manuel plan to meet Micaela a few days later at the bridge, where she is accompanying the Viceroy as he visits the hospital at Brother Juniper's Chapel. They travel with the Marquesa, Pepita, and Esteban, the Marquesa's scribe who also happens to be Manuel's twin brother. On the last fateful afternoon, the Viceroy crosses the bridge and steps into the chapel courtyard. As the Marquesa, Pepita, Manuel, and the Viceroy's aide begin to follow him, an Indian steps on as well. The ropes break and the five poor souls fall to their deaths. Micaela, who was just about to step on the bridge, is saved from falling by Manuel and Pio.

This adaptation of Villegas's story portrays colonial Peru in all its lavish grandeur and wealth. The Viceroy and his court are dressed in pompous eighteenth-century garb, with the women in Spanish-style gowns and veils. They entertain themselves by watching flamenco and drinking the King of Spain's wine. The Viceroy seems to concern himself little with the affairs of the colony, refusing his aides' insistence that he address them properly and instead continuing with his frivolous activities. Uncle Pio uses his favour with the Viceroy to influence him in policies that benefit the people, such as giving miners higher wages. The indigenous people are depicted as a "simple, friendly" folk, who are marginalized by society and deal only with the kind Brother Juniper. High Peruvian society is made up of pure Spaniards, who scorn the half-blood Micaela for her humble beginnings.

The film emphasizes the line between good and bad, right and wrong, but allows repentance and forgiveness to save all the characters from their humanity. The Catholic trust in God and his ever-forgiving goodness that characterized the Spanish belief system mingles with a questioning of God's intentions and workings on earth. In the end, it is accepted that God works in mysterious ways, and has His own reasons for allowing representatives of every level of colonial Peruvian society - an Indian, a lowly maid, a scribe, a Marquesa, and the Viceroy's top aide - to perish in a freak accident while saving Micaela and the others. God does not discriminate between races and classes as the Spanish do, explains Brother Juniper. In the end, all men are subject to God's power.

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