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Lost in La Mancha   B+

IFC Films

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: R
Directors: Keith Fulton, Louis Pepe
Writers: Keith Fulton, Louis Pepe
Cast: Terry Gilliam, Johnny Depp, Jean Rochefort, Philip A. Patterson, Vanessa Paradis, Jeff Bridges.

Review by Rob Vaux

The creative process rarely runs smooth. Muses can be quite sadistic, and the "tortured artist" cliché has more basis in truth than many people realize. This is particularly true in filmmaking, where the results require countless man-hours and millions of dollars. When problems arise, as they always do, they often require Herculean efforts to overcome. How can you stay true to your vision when the set's tumbling down and your lead drops dead? Numerous documentaries have covered such struggles, many of which now appear as extras on the pertinent DVDs. All of them, however, have a completed picture attached: the battles they depict ended more or less successfully, and in the most noted examples (such as Hearts of Darkness or Under Pressure: The Making of the Abyss) actually achieved something memorable. So what happens when the film doesn't survive? What happens when the slings and arrows prove too great, and the fight to bring a movie to life ends in failure? We haven't seen that before... not until documentary filmmakers Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe stumbled into one almost by chance. The result is Lost in La Mancha, a funny, heartbreaking record of a director's pet project going off the rails.

It's not just any director, nor just any project. It's Terry Gilliam -- one of cinema's true visionaries -- and the film is his long-anticipated version of Don Quixote. Gilliam's movies often center on quixotic characters, and his own persona has plenty of Cervantes at its core: a brilliant, possibly deranged genius whose head holds a universe all its own. He's tilted at more than his share of windmills (most spectacularly with his masterpiece Brazil, which required a colossal fight with Universal Pictures to survive), and making Don Quixote would appear to be the logical culmination of his career thus far. Alas the fates had other things in mind; Lost in La Mancha captures the tragicomic results.

Fulton and Pepe, who followed Gilliam during his filming of Twelve Monkeys were granted wide access to this new production. The proposed The Man Who Killed Don Quixote seems to have the cards stacked against it from the beginning. The funding comes entirely from Europe -- no studio influence -- and as such depends upon adhering to a tight budget. The stars, including Johnny Depp and French actor Jean Rochefort as Quixote, have unbreakable commitments after the shoot, meaning that the schedule cannot afford any delays. As we watch preproduction coming together -- from prop and costume tests to tense scheduling sessions with the various department heads -- the crew's nerves are contrasted by an eerie confidence. No one believes that this won't come off; they just know it won't be easy.

And then the roof caves in. The first day's shoot takes place near a NATO base, and the jets they were assured would not be a factor come screaming through the sky at regular intervals. Quickly thereafter, a freak monsoon -- like the hand of God Himself -- washes most of the set away and renders the entire location unusable. As the crew struggles to recover, a final, fatal blow falls: Rochefort develops serious health problems, sending him back to France and leaving him unable to fulfill his commitments to the role. After six days of shooting, the dream project is abandoned, and the ominous question arises as to who gets stuck with the check.

Fulton and Pepe benefit immeasurably from the access they received during the disaster, allowing them to recount all of the "hows" and "whys" as The Man Who Killed Don Quixote comes apart. They focus on the logistical end of filmmaking as well as the artistic, covering elements rarely seen by the public. Scheduling meetings, organizational plans, and a surreal visit from the film's investors... bit by bit, Lost in La Mancha reveals the mechanism behind the process, setting the stage for the disaster to come. At the same time, they never allow us to forget the creative cost as well. Besides the emotional toll on the filmmakers themselves, snippets of the Quixote-that-never-was pop tantalizingly to the surface: in test footage, effects shots, and the few precious bits of scenes that were actually put on celluloid. We can see Depp starting to get his mojo on, Rochefort's pitch perfect embodiment of Quixote, and Gilliam gazing wistfully as the images from his mind start to take physical form. It promised to be quite a movie, and its failure to manifest leaves a deep sadness in its wake.

Indeed, Lost in La Mancha would probably be much less compelling if it weren't for the director at the center of it all. Gilliam is quite a character, from his signature giggle to his relentless commitment to honesty ("You have to tell me these things so I know how badly we're fucked," he growls to a subordinate). His iconoclasm shines whenever he's on the screen, and his ruthlessly low bullshit tolerance level preserves some amazing moments... often at his own expense. Lost in La Mancha often feels like one of his films (including some clever animated sequences reminiscent of his Monty Python days), bringing energy and imagination to an already fascinating subject. It stands as a testament to his desire and drive as much as the obstacles that thwarted him; even in the end, when his dream lies in shambles and the financial vultures are circling the carcass, he remains unbowed. You bastards. His eyes gaze heavenward, accusing the fates. I'll get you for this.

Review published 01.30.2003.

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