It’s always painful when a brilliant book becomes a bust of a movie. Consider the fate of the first novel by journalist Isabel Allende – a relative of the Chilean president Salvador Allende, who was killed in a coup in 1973. Allende’s saga, stretching from the 1920s to the 1970s, used a tale of sorrow, blood and love in Latin America to strike a universal chord. The 1985 book demanded major talents to bring it to the screen. And it got them. Danish director-writer Bille August (Pelle the Conqueror) assembled a cast headed by Britain’s Jeremy Irons and Vanessa Redgrave, America’s Meryl Streep, Glenn Close and Winona Ryder, Germany’s Armin Mueller-Stahl and Spain’s Antonio Banderas. It sounds formidable until you realize that this polyglot acting troupe is meant to share national and family ties.
Whoops. Irons is hardly ideal casting as the macho, rapacious patriarch Esteban Trueba. Even in thick pancake makeup (and a thicker accent), he looks better suited for high tea than for pillaging governments and peasant girls. Streep also fights a losing battle. As Trueba’s ethereal wife, Clara, possessed of the power to see her family’s future, she seems gripped less by spirits than by a galloping dementia. Ryder is Blanca, the daughter of these two unlikely Chileans. By virtue of underplaying, Ryder doesn’t embarrass herself, at least not until her prison torture scenes. Blanca rebels by bedding Pedro (Banderas), the revolutionary son of her father’s foreman. Banderas’ Spanish accent is authentic, which makes him seem oddly out of place in a cast that includes Redgrave and Mueller-Stahl as Clara’s parents.
Only Close as Ferula, Trueba’s spinster sister, manages to grasp Allende’s point about the evolution of feminine consciousness in a world ruled by men. August keeps the rest of Allende’s Spirits decidedly earth-bound. No matter. The movie will vanish quickly; the book will endure.