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‘The House of the Spirits’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 01, 1994

"The House of the Spirits," the film adaptation of Isabel Allende's venerated novel, makes short shrift of the book's bounties, shreds the plot, combines or eliminates characters, airbrushes the brutal parts -- then attempts to dignify the destruction with a crowd of prestigious stars, including Jeremy Irons, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Winona Ryder, Antonio Banderas and Vanessa Redgrave.

Director Bille August, maker of "Pelle the Conqueror" and "The Best Intentions," seems befuddled by Allende's world of political turmoil, family melodrama, class struggle and spectral wonder. Attempting to reprise his Scandinavian angst-pieces, August ends up with 128 minutes of backlit, portentous highlights from the book. Instead of evoking her "House," August's adaptation condemns it with the movie equivalent of a Reader's Digest abridgment.

Distracted by his arty responsibilities, the Danish filmmaker seems oblivious to the cast's clashing of tongues. "The House of the Spirits," which also features Armin Mueller-Stahl, Teri Polo, Sarita Choudhury and Maria Conchita Alonso, amounts to an international incident of differing accents and acting styles. Irons's classic British delivery comes up against Streep's New World smoothness, while Ryder's whispery American patter faces off with Banderas's halting English. What is this place, Esperanto Land?

The movie, set between the 1920s and mid-1970s, is the saga of self-made landowner and eventual senator Estaban Trueba (Irons), whose arrogance, stubbornness, concupiscence and Marxist-phobia destroy his extended family, his servants and -- thanks to his cloak-and-dagger maneuvering with the military -- his country.

Most direly affected by Trueba is his family. His ethereal, card-reading wife, Clara (Streep), takes refuge from his stormy rages by conversing with the spirits and, finally, refusing to speak with him. His daughter Blanca (Ryder), who has an illegitimate child with peasant-boyfriend Pedro (Banderas), continues the affair on the sly -- after Trueba attempts to murder the communist upstart and force Blanca into an arranged marriage.

There is also Ferula (Close), Trueba's ascetic, sober sister whom the vindictive patriarch banishes from his house -- mistakenly believing she's having an affair with Clara. Among the villagers, there is Pancha (Choudhury), raped by Trueba, then sent away like a dog when she asks the patron to support their bastard son.

Adapting a tome as sweeping as Allende's is a formidable -- and possibly futile -- task. August's attempt to traverse half a century of events, experienced by a plurality (in fact, a nation) of characters, is rushed, costumed and empty. Most significantly, his movie misses Allende's magic-realism atmospherics (which flit between surrealistic and political, black comic and deeply tragic) and her sense of depth.

In the book, for instance, when Trueba rapes Pancha, the ironies run rampant. Her mother and grandmother were similarly raped by Trueba's forebears. They, like Pancha, were brought into the master's household as maids and concubines. Oppression is grimly perpetuating itself; the crime is archetypally horrific. The child Pancha conceives is but one of Trueba's innumerable rape progeny. But in the movie, Trueba comes across merely as an eccentric rogue with a penchant for occasionally impregnating the locals.

The viewer doesn't have to be familiar with the book, however, to realize the film's a pretentious failure. Irons (who seems to divvy up all available crusty-male roles with Anthony Hopkins) is merely re-spinning his Claus von Bulow in "Reversal of Fortune." If, as von Bulow, he sounded as though he had a few cotton balls wedged in his cheeks, he seems here to have tipped the entire box into his mouth. As the years pass him by, he doesn't age, he suffers latex buildup.

Instead of being a wise woman deeply communicative with the other side, Streep just seems to be a radiant little nut case. As for Close, her black-clad combination of the Judith Anderson housekeeper in Alfred Hitchcock's "Rebecca" and the avenging demon in "Fatal Attraction" is just asking for audience snickers.

"House"-the-movie could have expanded in directions of its own, in the same way that Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" radically rewrote the Raymond Carver short stories it drew from. But August's version lacks conviction, purpose and strength. A tentative construction without blueprint or foundation, it's bound to come crashing down. Not minutes into the picture, it does.

"The House of the Spirits" is rated R for nudity and violence.

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