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The House of the Spirits Reviews

Watching Garbo at the eclipse of her career, Time magazine once said, was "like seeing your mother drunk." THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS is like seeing her on crack. The story, from the best-selling novel by Isabel Allende, is purely incidental to the unintentionally hysterical stylings of this potential camp cult film. It's truly awful, and one shouldn't miss it for the world. SPIRITS chronicles the tempestuous dysfunction of the Trueba family from 1926 to 1971 in Chile. Esteban (Jeremy Irons) is a grasping, reactionary, self-made despot who has amassed a fortune in mining. When his fiancee is accidentally poisoned, he settles for her younger sister, Clara (Meryl Streep), a clairvoyant since childhood. Esteban's spinster sister, Ferula (Glenn Close), has become her brother's housekeeper, but immediately becomes a bone of contention in the marriage. Ferula responds to Clara's kindness, and is tortured by a latent impulse to sleep with her sister-in-law. Clara becomes pregnant, correctly predicting the birth of her daughter, Blanca (in adulthood, Winona Ryder). Despite the completion of his family unit, Esteban is dogged by a bastard son, Esteban Garcia (Vincent Gallo), the product of his brutal rape of a peasant woman (Sarita Choudury). Blanca is schooled away from home, but her vacations allow her to resume an ongoing affair with Pedro (Antonio Banderas), a worker on her father's ranch who is attempting to organize the migrants in a revolt. Esteban catches Ferula in his wife's bed, then turns her out without any belongings. Ferula dies in poverty, but her ghost interrupts dinner at the hacienda. Esteban also banishes Pedro, but discovers his lingering involvement with Blanca; he beats his daughter, then his wife for attempting to intervene. Yet trouble at home does not deter the power-mad Esteban from rising to senator. By 1971, Salvador Allende's popular government is overthrown in right-wing coup that brings a quasi-fascist military government to power. Esteban finds himself scrambling to rescue his daughter, held for questioning in the military crackdown, and help Pedro escape to freedom, turning to his former regular prostitute turned influential madam (Maria Conchita Alonso) for help. This series of catastrophic events finally transforms Esteban's base consciousness. They should have called it THE HOUSE OF SPIRIT GUM, a pale salute to yesterday's star system, augmented by face tricks and wiggery. Glenn Close does Norma Shearer (even more than usual) dressed down in a Gale Sondergaard wig. Not to be outdone, Meryl Streep goes noble, too; she's Greer Garson, with a rug seemingly borrowed from one of the Gish sisters. Jeremy Irons has a trick in his make-up box--it looks to be Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion mouth prosthetic, making him sound like a combination of John Huston and Boris Karloff. Winona Ryder's trademark feyness reaches new heights; every line reading seems straight out of Uncle Walt's BAMBI. Vanessa Redgrave, who appears in a small role, seems to have Eleanor Roosevelt on her mind; which leaves Antonio Banderas to add a few strokes of early Tyrone Power to this ludicrously rendered panoramic canvas. The inappropriate Anglo casting in lead roles received more outraged publicity than the completed SPIRITS itself, and rightly so. Worse, the supporting roles and teeming extras are all ethnically correct, resulting in an apparent racial hierarchy among the performers. The stars evince no Hispanic energy, temperament or sensuality. These only come into play when Alonso and Gallo, as the bastard son turned twisted revolutionary, briefly take the screen. Indeed, the latter actor gives a semblance of what SPIRITS might have been, contributing a chilling portrayal amidst the faltering star turns. THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS is a savage waste--a mangling of an esteemed novel, an expose of star egos, and a gigantic squandering of enormous amounts of money. But given a wicked, rueful turn of mood, there's no reason one shouldn't turn to it for guffaws at the expense of the famous--a kind of cinematic primal therapy when one feels like screaming at the screen. (Violence, nudity, sexual situations, adult situations, profanity.)