In the world of "Erendira," oranges glow on the tree, roses light up in the vase, scraps of paper become animated moths, and money blows around a room like sea gulls disturbed on the beach.
"Erendira" was scripted by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, based on his own fiction; this style is supposed to replicate Marquez's celebrated "magic realism." But it just looks like tired surrealism, the kind of tame wonderment that makes you forget that surrealism began as a strategy of outrage. "Erendira" uses surrealism as decoration -- it's a sort of breakfast surreal.
The focus of this world is Erendira (Claudia Ohana), a 14-year-old girl with large and lonely eyes who dutifully serves her mad martinet grandmother (the cackling, grandiose Irene Papas). One night, Erendira neglectfully leaves candles on the windowsill, so the curtains catch fire; amid the smoldering ruins of her house, the grandmother decides to make her money back by hiring Erendira out as a prostitute.
The movie echoes Fellini's "La Strada," but it's more like "Oliver Twist," with a twist -- "Please sir, I don't want any more." Erendira feels "as if someone has beaten me in the kidneys," but greedy grandma keeps the lines of soldiers, smugglers and drifters moving, trading pesos for pleasure under a sign that reads, "Without Erendira Life Is Not Worth Living."
Without the vast, imaginative scope of the novel, "Erendira" plays as a kind of shorthand of confusing symbols and unintelligible maxims; its themes wash around without ever congealing. And while Ruy Guerra shoots it competently, with a certain flair for composition, he never arrives at a suitably imaginative style.
Marquez's work returns us to a time where myth was possible, makes us see the world new again; it demands a spectacular, frightening kind of genius to do it justice (Peter Sellars?). The problem with "Erendira" is that it always seems familiar. Who gets excited about teen-age prostitutes in the movies anymore? It's not something you'd stop your taxi for.
"Erendira" opens today at the K-B Janus. The film is unrated, but contains explicit sexual scenes.