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The Film that Killed Don Quixote

‘Lost in La Mancha’ is a Loser

By Jed Horne

Staff Writer

Lost in La Mancha

MPAA Rating: R, for language

Written and Directed by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe

Starring Terry Gilliam, Jean Rochefort, and Johnny Depp

Rated R

Terry Gilliam, alternately billed as the genius behind Brazil and the moron responsible for Jabberwocky, has never had a great relationship with mainstream audiences. Lost In La Mancha, a documentary about what would have been his latest film, is, I think, unintentionally revealing of this difficulty. As hard as newcomers Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe try to depict Gilliam as a quixotic genius unhampered by chaos and improbable odds, the story of the demise of a movie about Cervantes’ Don is more aggravating than illuminating, more pathetic than pitiable, and, above all, wildly pompous. Whether this was supposed to explain why about half of Gilliam’s movies are unmitigated failures is more or less beside the point. Lost In La Mancha is still a real stinker.

Jeff Daniels narrates the story of the would-be-film appropriately titled The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Forever haunted by the catastrophe that was The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Gilliam begins the film bent on realizing his creative vision, undeterred by portents of disaster, including a drastically reduced budget and trouble obtaining a cast. Fortunately for Fulton and Pepe, who wouldn’t have had a movie without a disaster, they got one in spades. Gilliam’s liberal reinterpretation of Cervantes’ work (including Johny Depp as a modern-day executive transported back in time to become Sancho Panza and French veteran Jean Rochefort as Quixote) is plagued by a series of mishaps including mudslides, the buzzing of NATO aircraft from a nearby bombing range, and Rochefort’s prostate infection. Without money, a main actor, or the will to continue, the entire project stalls after six days of shooting. Judging by the bits of actual film footage used in the documentary, this is a good thing.

First, the acutely annoying bits. Top of the list is Gilliam’s laugh: a shrill, grating guffaw that barely masks his obvious insecurity and difficulties with reality. Next is the indecipherable babble of his Quixote. Anyone who’s seen Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is well acquainted with Gilliam’s glaring inability to edit sound, but Rochefort, who ostensibly studied English for seven months prior to production, is about as difficult to understand as any French actor staring in an American movie about someone from Spain can be.

Now for the merely aggravating. The parade of key grips and assistant directors that the filmmakers parade in front of the camera is about as dull as you would imagine it. The first half of the movie -- a cacophonous blur of uninteresting technical details tinged with a vague feeling of apprehension about the film’s finances -- is probably enough to doom the effort from the start. Things do get a little bit better later on, but the opportunity is mostly wasted. The disintegration of the film-within-a-film is mildly pathetic, but curiously lacking in a sense of humor.

But the most notable aspect of Lost in La Mancha is its ham-handedness. The filmmakers can’t seem to get over the (unabashedly pretentious) assertion that Don Quixote is Gilliam’s alter-ego, and then proceed to hit the audience over head with an already limp metaphor, devoting interminable scenes to a collection of what must be a thousand model windmills scattered around the set. All this begs the question: is Terry a dreamer, an idiot, or just a prick?

Given that the two documentarians only previous work was a making-of of another Gilliam flick (Twelve Monkeys), I guess they can’t help aggrandizing their benefactor. But you’d think they would have just a twinge of shame. Don’t think I’ve made my point? Read this, from the film’s Web site:

Lost In La Mancha is less a process piece about filmmakers at work and more a powerful drama about the inherent fragility of the creative process -- a compelling study of how, even with an abundance of the best will and passion, the artistic endeavor can remain an impossible dream.”

Need I say more?