Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Bridge of San Luis Rey

The Bridge of San Luis Rey posterThis 2004 version of Thornton Wilder's novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey is the only one of three versions that remains true to the original novel's shocking ending. The novel and film are loosely based on the life of Peruvian actress Micaela Villegas (1748-1819), known as "La Perichole", a reference to her mixed Spanish and indigenous blood. She was the mistress of the Peruvian Viceroy Manuel Amat y Juniet from 1761 to 1766. The film, however, focusses little on La Perichole and more on the various other characters whose stories intertwine with hers.

The opening scene depicts Franciscan monk Brother Juniper (Gabriel Byrne) being questioned by the Archbishop of Peru (Robert De Niro) before the Peruvian Viceroy and his court. The questioning regards the book Brother Juniper has written about an event which occurred six years earlier, the collapse of the Bridge of San Luis Rey in the Andes, which sent five seemingly unrelated travellers plunging to their deaths in a deep gorge. The Spanish Inquisition is underway, and Brother Juniper's book has been deemed heretical for its questioning of Fate and God's will. In order to defend himself, Brother Juniper must tell the tale of the Bridge of San Luis Rey, which begins the day that he witnesses the tragedy near his mountainside church. Deeply saddened and intrigued by the seemingly arbitrary nature of these five people's deaths, Brother Juniper takes it upon himself to investigate their stories so that he can find some insight into the workings of God's will. The flashback of Brother Juniper's discoveries begins with the Marquesa Maria de Montemayor, the richest woman in all of Peru. She is a lonely old woman, obsessed with a daughter who has abandoned her for a husband in the court of Spain. She manipulates the Viceroy's court in Peru and participates in the most vicious gossip, all for the sake of her daughter's praise, as she sinks deeper into a lonely, alcohol-numbed existence. In order to alleviate her pain, she asks the Archbishop of Peru to find her a companion. He promptly bribes the Abbess of a convent to provide the Marquesa with a young girl, Pepita, who will live with the Marquesa and help her around the house. One of the Marquesa's favourite pastimes is going to the theatre, where the famous actress La Perrichole is the star attraction. La Perrichole is under the tutelage of the theatre's manager, the nefarious but benign Uncle Pio, who has dedicated himself to making her a star. Part of this process has included his encouragement of her affair with the Viceroy, who in return for her attentions provides the theatre with generous patronage. La Perrichole has a secret lover on the side, a handsome matador to whom she sends letters dictated to her scribe Manuel, a silent young man who shares his silence and his identity with his inseparable twin brother Esteban. One day, Manuel and Esteban are unloading a ship at the harbour for a Spanish captain, Alvarado, when Manuel's leg is gravely injured. Despite Esteban's care, Manuel's leg becomes gangrenous and eventually kills him. Esteban's consequent depression leads him to quit his job as La Perrichole's scribe and try to commit suicide. Captain Alvarado arrives just in time to save Esteban from his death, and takes Esteban under his wing, giving him a job on his ship for his next trip to Spain.

We return to La Perrichole's story, in which she and the Viceroy are attending a bullfight together. The matador, her secret lover, publicly pronounces his passion for La Perrichole, causing the Viceroy to be humiliated. That night, at the theatre, the Marquesa angers La Perrichole by acting shamelessly bored in front of all the Royal Court; La Perrichole responds by publicly making fun of the Marquesa. The Viceroy takes this opportunity to avenge himself for his humiliation by ordering La Perrichole to make a public apology to the Marquesa wearing the rags of shame. When she goes to the Marquesa's palace to apologize the following day, La Perrichole is surprised to discover that the Marquesa has had an epiphany, in which she repents from her scheming ways and apologizes to La Perrichole. La Perrichole's relief is fleeting, however, as she soon discovers she is pregnant with the Viceroy's child. The Viceroy arranges for her to live in a villa high up in the Andes until the child is born. Her absence causes Uncle Pio a great deal of sadness; not only has he lost his beloved protegee, but without her his theatre suffers. Once she has had the child, little Don Jaime, Uncle Pio repeatedly visits her and tries to convince her to return, but La Perrichola has accepted her lonely fate away from the public eye. The situation worsens when an outbreak of smallpox infects her and disfigures her loveliness; she escapes the villa and goes to live alone in the mountains with her son, hoping never to see anyone ever again. A few years later, Uncle Pio finds her and convinces her to let him take young Don Jaime back to Lima, where he can be educated and properly cared for by Uncle Pio.

The final and fateful day of the collapse of the Bridge of San Luis Rey arrives as the destinies of all these characters come together. Uncle Pio is returning from La Perrichola's hideout in the Andes with the little child Jaime on his back. The lonely Esteban, who has spent a few days up at Captain Alvarado's house in the mountains, is returning to Lima to embark upon his journey to Spain. La Marquesa is returning from a pilgrimage to Brother Juniper's church in the mountains, where she has travelled to beg God for forgiveness of her past misdeeds, with Pepita in tow. The Marquesa, Pepita, Esteban, Uncle Pio, and little Jaime step onto the bridge, and before Brother Juniper's eyes, plunge to their deaths as the ropes of the bridge break. The flashback ends, bringing us back to the interrogation of Brother Juniper by the Archbishop. The Archbishop denounces his writings as heretical, as the "work of the devil", because Brother Juniper's close search for a historical, mathematical proof of God demonstrates doubt of God. This absurd accusation is supported by all those in the court, including the Viceroy. La Perrichole is brought in to testify for Brother Juniper, but the smallpox that has disfigured her face causes the Viceroy to refuse to acknowledge her identity, making her testimony useless. The Archbishop condemns Brother Juniper to be burned at the stake, with all the copies of his book, "The Bridge of San Luis Rey".

The film was shot on location in Spain, despite its setting being Peru. The focus is on the elaborate power structure of the Spanish colonial system, on the lavish and exaggerated lifestyles of the power-hungry Spanish elites. These elites are portrayed as ridiculous, pompous, and stupid. The Viceroy and his aides are hedonistic and decadent wig-wearing fools, who care little for the proper governance of the colony and more about entertaining themselves. The Marquesa is a fat, desperate and lonely woman who uses her obscene wealth to gain favour in the court. Uncle Pio and La Perrichole, who are lower on the hierarchical ladder of the colony, will do anything to be accepted by these elites, even betray themselves. The costumes in the film, which were praised by critics (the only thing praised by critics) are luxurious and exaggerated, demonstrating the wealth and decadence of the ruling elites. Only Brother Juniper lies outside this struggle for social status; he lives a frugal life among the natives, tending to his church. His good deeds are denounced by the Church, which opposes his education of the natives and his challenge of the Church's corruption. In the colonial system, climbing the social ladder and gaining prestige is of the utmost importance, and goodness is squashed under the quest for power.

It seems that the deaths of the repentant Marquesa, the kind Pepita, the suffering Esteban, the benevolent Uncle Pio, the innocent little Jaime, and the holy Brother Juniper prove that in colonial Peru, goodness can't survive. The good are taken up to heaven, where they are free from the evils of their fellow men. Colonial Peru is a place for wicked men to play their petty games and pay for them with boredom, desperation, and sickness. Brother Juniper's search for God's will reveals that God rewards those who are good, who repent for their sins and help others, by removing them from the cruel world, while leaving the power-hungry to their wicked lives on earth. The manipulation of religious faith by the Archbishop and the Viceroyalty as a means of achieving political power shows their godlessness, a godlessness that permeates the air of colonial Peru.

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