It was quite something sitting down to watch this film. Few films have had such a difficult, and well-documented journey to the big screen as this one. The playful opening credits allude to this arduous parturition, and it was with no small buzz of delight that Terry Gilliam finally brings The Man Who Killed Don Quixote to audiences.
This is not the film Gilliam set out to make at the end of the turn of the century. However the shadow of the beleaguered and painful production has worked its way into the fabric of this new narrative. What unfolds is a mesmerising absurdist fantasy, as much a satire of the modern filmmaking process as it is a quest for identity on the constantly shifting sands of sanity. It is visually stunning, emotionally powerful and handmade in the best possible way.
Ostensibly it is the story of a film director (Adam Driver) up to his neck on location in Spain shooting a grand retelling of the legend of Don Quixote. Besieged with misfortune, a chaotic set and a sudden lack of inspiration the director returns to the nearby location of his famous student film (also based on the Man of La Mancha) to seek out the players who helped make him famous. It is this moment, the expedition into the past, which opens up Gilliam’s film to a dreamlike state. We, like our main character, bound headlong into Los Sueños, and all the wonderful and terrible things it contains.
It is in the character of Jonathan Pryce’s shoemaker Javier, whom the young director corrals into appearing in his student film as Quixote himself, that the film finds its most potent emotional element. Convinced in the years following his tiny fame in the student film that he IS Don Quixote, Gilliam throws this Myshkin-esque ‘naturally good man’ into the raging fires of commerce and the evil that men do. We, like Adam Driver’s character, become a Sancho Panza to him. We look on incredulously as Don Quixote rages against injustice, cruelty, errant windmills and the unchivalrous world around him. We want him to succeed, but – ultimately – we want to believe that good will triumph over evil, the compassionate will overcome the cruel, and that art will defy the constraints of commerce.
There are few directors who fill the frame as opulently as Gilliam. Driver and Pryce bound gamely through ruined towns and costume parties filled to the brim with chaotic life. The effect is dizzying. Like the bustling airports of Twelve Monkeys, the awful hungry throng of Brazil’s restaurants and the miserable thoroughfares surrounding The Zero Theorem they teem with movement. And much like The Fisher King’s most famous scene, into these billowing hordes Gilliam throws his actors to dance, to tell their story centre stage, to break out from the confusion, to take our hands and race on once more to the next maelstrom.
While this relentless and rich journey is one of the film’s chief joys, it is also the causes of one of its downfalls. Each episode builds on the other, revealing its overall picture step by step. Some of these episodes outstay their welcome, others feel extraneous and fatigue the eye. While Gilliam purists will want to dive deep into this strange pilgrimage, others may tire and desire a firmer narrative hold.
Cinematically Gilliam is as sharp as ever, windmilling our point of view with some choice angles and lens choices. He is keen to throw us off balance, but never to let us lose our way. It is playful, ardent and a joy to behold. One transition, early on in the film, has us moving back from the present to the past, and from the outside to the inside, in one impeccably realised movement. It is not mere cinematic sleight of hand, nor it is done to impress – it is exactly what was needed, and is accomplished with typical aplomb. It is one of many moments which serve as a reminder why it’s important to have Gilliam back on the big screen.