Palatable: Lost in La Mancha

Lost in La Mancha (2002)
Written and directed by Keith Fulton & Louis Pepe
Produced by Lucy Darwin, Andrew Curtis, Rosa Bosch
Narrated by Jeff Bridges
Starring Terry Gilliam, Philip A. Patterson, Nicola Pecorini, José Luis Escolar, Jean Rochefort, René Cleitman, Bernard Bouix, Johnny Depp, Tony Grisoni, Gabriella Pescucci, Benjamín Fernández
It was initially commissioned as a broadcast program documenting the oft-essayed (and as often snookered) production of Terry Gilliam's unrealized The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, and would surely have been televised during the theatrical run of that feature and included as the premiere featurette of its home video editions had it not been thwarted by a cluster of concurrent whammies. Cervantes' deathless proto-picaresque classic is less an ideal source for the fanciful auteur's cinematic vision than one of his key influences - without that seminal chef-d'oeuvre's axiom of madness as a couple to imaginative release and illusory means of penetrative insight, neither his works nor those of his intermediary antecessors would be at all recognizable, if existent. At an unprecedented European budget of $32M, this venture commenced seventeen years ago in Madrid, and was attended with a wary optimism by all involved: in interview, DP Pecorini, assistant director Patterson and line producer Escolar all accord for their admiration of Gilliam and accounts of his toilsome modus operandi, and even as outlandish costumes, statuary and man-sized puppets were fabricated during pre-production, Gilliam and his crew conceded the precarious condition of their pecuniary situation: despite the relative enormity of their budgetary largesse, these funds were nigh scanty to realize a spectacular of the magnitude reverberant in Gilliam's mind. Escolar and executive producer Bouix meanwhile grappled with no small strenuity to coincide the schedules of their ostensively contracted players, but the production's success hinged on Gilliam's sole selection for the role of the titular lofty lunatic. Spare at 71, debonaire and equestrian with a physiognomy conformable to Quixote's most popular representations (as by Doré), Rochefort was likely the most apposite actor and caballero of eminence available, his avidity after eighteen months' deliberation demonstrated by an education of conversational English in merely six. His jovial first meeting with Gilliam's followed by the arrival of Depp -- surely the most famous and biddable of all the director's recurring collaborators -- paired with Rochefort's iconic faux knight as an advertising executive unaccountably displaced in Cervantes' romantic realm and mistaken by the errant protagonist as Sancho Panza. A portentous pall seemed to adumbrate this production anterior to its shoot of a working week, afflicting Gilliam, his leads and crew with a palpable disconcertion before launching their shoot in the picturesque badlands of Bardenas Reales, a site splendidly substituted for La Mancha...which neighbors a notorious NATO gunnery range. By his vocal admission, Gilliam's chief stimulus is difficulty itself, but no sensible viewer or financier could impute to that bent the deafening stridence of overhead fighter jets, a sudden torrential downpour and resultant flooding, injury to appurtenances, and geochromatic alteration of the region's magnificent cabezos entirely discordant to that thitherto shot. A mortal blow to the film's fate was struck when Rochefort suffered a herniated disc that stifled his performance before incapacitating him entirely, after which a few final shoots sputtered before the flick was scuttled by Patterson's advice preceding his resignation and a subsequent collective consent to which producer René Cleitman acquiesced. Fulsome souvenirs survived this incarnation of Quixote: meticulously crafted costumes and scenery, perhaps ten minutes of usable film, test footage of Rochefort, Vanessa Paradis, et al. gorgeously shot by Pecorini, probatory shots recorded by Gilliam with his DV camcorder, storyboards that he illustrated in his unmistakable cartoonish idiom and his script co-written with continuous collaborator Grisoni, whose commentary bookends this document. To witness the collapse of a cooperative creative enterprise for which its cineaste and his crew strove so arduously to compass is disheartening, but Fulton's and Pepe's documentary preserves an experience common to those languishing in development hell yet often unfamiliar to the public. For twenty years, Welles struggled fruitlessly to complete his faithful adaptation of Quixote; of late, Gilliam finally fulfilled his second attempt twenty-six after his Twainian script was first drafted. If Cervantes' specter loomed ominously over these fiascos, it seems no match for the tenacity of this erstwhile Python.
Recommended for a double feature paired with Burden of Dreams or Jodorowsky's Dune.

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