Given the fact that it’s one of Thornton Wilder’s most peculiar and deliberately distancing works, it’s curious that “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” has been filmed three times–first as a (mostly) silent picture in 1929, then in 1944 in a plodding adaptation directed by Rowland V. Lee, and now in an even more turgid one from writer-director Mary McGuckian. Wilder’s little book today seems a stylistically very artificial rumination on the nature of love and its role in the ancient chance-vs.-fate debate–an uncharitable person might suggest that it should be retitled “Providence for Dummies” or “When Bad Things Happen to Good People, or Vice Versa.” But it still deserves better than this ponderous, heavy-handed film, a high-minded snoozer studded with stars who all seem almost perversely miscast and directed in a grimly deliberate style that seems designed to italicize every point.
McGuckian, to be sure, tries to be faithful to spirit of the original, but inevitably she has had to restructure things substantially to shape Wilder’s meditation on the death of five people killed in the eighteenth-century collapse of a foot-bridge in the Peruvian mountains into a script with an even remotely accessible dramatic arc. The way she’s done this is to spotlight elements that are secondary in the novel, namely the effort of the eighteenth-century Franciscan Brother Juniper to document the lives of the victims in order to prove “scientifically” that their deaths were signs of God’s providential plan rather than meaningless accidents, and his subsequent prosecution for heresy because of the conclusions he reaches. These matters are certainly mentioned in the book, but basically as background to the central story of the five dead, which is related by an omniscient narrator who effectively chides the mendicant for the triviality of his method and mentions his execution for heresy only briefly at the end. Here the trial of Juniper is made a recurrent motif through which flashbacks outlining the experiences of the victims are periodically introduced. The result of this is twofold. First, it makes for a structurally choppy integration of the various plot threads, which were laid out by Wilder in a succession of chapters, each concentrating on a single character, rather than in the narrative pan-and-scan format adopted here. (The choice made by McGukian and editors Sylvie Landra and Kant Pan to end so many scenes with blackouts rather than smooth transitions makes the picture seem even more disjointed–and flaccid.) Second, it considerably expands the role of Juniper, as well as those of the Archbishop of Lima, who interrogates the friar and calls sternly for his condemnation, and the Viceroy of Peru, who presides at the trial–both of whom are decidedly peripheral characters in the book.
That in turn has a major impact on the cast, since it provides major parts for three of the biggest names in it–Robert De Niro, who plays the Archbishop; F. Murray Abraham, the Viceroy; and Gabriel Byrne, Brother Juniper. Unfortunately, none of them distinguishes himself. De Niro, encased in plush robes and mitres, is about as expressive and agile as a statue of the Infant of Prague, and delivers his lines–even the vaguely catty ones–in an emotionally empty roar; but even at that he’s more animated than Byrne, who sleepwalks through his part, unable to rouse himself to anything more than a placid smile even when he’s being burned at the stake. Abraham, on the other hand, is all wild-eyed exaggeration and gesticulation–a truly corrupt performance. One wishes that the actors assigned to play the personages that loom larger in Wilder’s book were appreciably better, but such is only sporadically the case. As Dona Maria, who pines away after her neglectful daughter, Kathy Bates alternates between blank serenity and overwrought weeping, neither very successfully; and though one hesitates to mention this, it should hardly be a surprise when a rickety old bridge collapses under the weight of a woman of such–well, amplitude. Harvey Keitel, meanwhile, completely fails to convince as the considerate, self-sacrificing Uncle Pio, a part that requires him to play against every inch of type. (It doesn’t help that in all these cases the performers speak in flat American accents, making no effort to give the generally limp dialogue any sort of period flavor and robbing the movie of any real sense of place.) Among the luminaries the most effective lead turns are provided by little-known Pilar Lopez de Ayala as La Perichola, the flirtatious actress whom Uncle Pio serves, and Adriana Dominguez as Pepita, the novice nun who becomes Dona Maria’s servant. (Both have the advantage, of course, of having an appropriate ethnic background.) In the supporting cast, Geraldine Chaplin is properly austere as the Abbess, but Mark and Michael Polish project a nearly Bill-and-Ted quality as Manuel and Esteban, the twins whose near-identity is shattered by the latter’s unrequited love of La Perichola, a passion that leads to disaster for both.
“The Bridge of San Luis Rey” is by European standards an opulent production, but even here there’s no magic in the production design, art direction or cinematography. (The scenes of the Spanish royal court, for example, look much more appropriate to Versailles.) There’s a rather spare score by veteran Lalo Schifrin that at least provides a touch of the atmosphere the film otherwise sadly lacks.
When it first appeared in 1928, “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” won the Pulitzer Prize. While undoubtedly a serious, if pedestrian (pardon the pun), effort at philosophical-theological moralizing, it no longer seems distinguished enough to warrant such an accolade. But whatever your views on that, it’s certain that this equally serious but even more pedestrian screen version will win no comparable awards.