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With: Terry Gilliam, Johnny Depp, Jean Rochefort, Jeff Bridges (narrator)
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Keith Fulton, Louis Pepe
MPAA Rating: R for language
Running Time: 90
Date: 02/11/2002

Lost in La Mancha (2003)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Don's' Swan Song

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In May of 2002, a poll of 100 writers from 54 countries listed the 100greatest novels of all time. The results were published alphabeticallywith one exception: Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote was ranked numberone.

Almost 100 years earlier, the first filmed version of Don Quixote was made. It was probably just one reel long (about 10 minutes) and probably doesn't exist anymore. But since then Don Quixote has been attempted on film at least 35 or 40 more times.

Among the most notable are G.W. Pabst's 1933 version, Robert Helpmann and Rudolf Nureyev's 1973 ballet film, Peter Yates' 2000 television film with John Lithgow and Arthur Hiller's 1972 musical version with Peter O'Toole -- none of them terribly memorable.

The most legendary Don Quixote film belongs to Orson Welles, who began shooting in the mid-50s and continued cobbling together footage throughout the rest of his life, even after his lead actor had passed on. The results have never been released.

Now we have Lost in La Mancha, a documentary chronicling the ill-fated production of a new version of Don Quixote, this time by maverick director Terry Gilliam (Brazil, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). The documentary talks about the "Curse of Quixote," but the existence of those 30-odd other films suggests that only when brave, outlandish directors -- such as Welles or Gilliam -- take on the work does Cervantes' ghost get a little skittish.

Directed by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, Lost in La Mancha gives us the bare-bones story of Gilliam's version. Johnny Depp would have played a man who travels back in time only to be mistaken by Don Quixote for Sancho Panza. Seventy-something French actor Jean Rochefort (The Phantom of Liberty, The Hairdresser's Husband) would have played Quixote. Rochefort had spent the previous 7 months learning English (and a Spanish accent) for the part.

Unfortunately, Rochefort developed some kind of serious back trouble and had to be whisked away to a hospital after a day of shooting. Apparently the act of riding a horse -- something Rochefort would have to do nearly every day -- aggravated his problem.

On top of that, extreme weather washed away one of Gilliam's carefully chosen locations, and completely changed their look and color.

That's really all that happens in Lost in La Mancha besides a few production meetings and Gilliam playing with his props and costumes. The narrator (Jeff Bridges) tells us how extravagant everything is, but it all looks somehow chintzy. Even so, Gilliam's Quixote would have been the most expensive film ever financed without Hollywood money.

As the film leaves off, the rights to Gilliam's screenplay are in the hands of insurance company scum -- the same scum who try to write off Rochefort's health problems as an "act of God," which is not covered in their policy. The closing titles tell us that Gilliam is currently trying to raise more money to buy back his script and start again.

Though Lost in La Mancha is a trifle of a film -- it seems more suited to the "extras" side of a DVD than a theatrical release -- it does make us yearn for what might have been. Despite the ramshackle production, the small bits of finished footage hint at a grand and bizarre film. Gilliam is a true visionary, a one-of-a-kind filmmaker who lives by his own instincts -- hang what anyone else says.

His extraordinary (and very expensive) The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was met by indifference when it was released in 1989, and it flopped. Its red tape has been haunting Gilliam ever since, turning him into a modern-day Welles -- a genius unappreciated in his own time by short-sighted investors and brain-dead audiences. Lost in La Mancha does make a passing reference to the Welles connection, but it fails to understand the big picture.

Indeed, the film gives the impression that the filmmakers were in the middle of another dull "making of" documentary and decided to cash in on the project's problems, perhaps hoping for another Burden of Dreams or Hearts of Darkness but falling far short of those films' mythology.

Fortunately, Gilliam's last film, the highly misunderstood and criminally underrated masterpiece Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) will be released on DVD next month by the Criterion Collection. That, more than Lost in La Mancha, should help nail down what a tremendous filmmaker we have in Gilliam and why he should be given all the money and freedom he needs.

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