The House of the Spirits
Distributed by: Miramax Films
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
I had never heard of The House of the Spirits before and, thus, never had a desire to see this film. But it was one of three movies on a compilation DVD I had purchased. I wanted the other two movies in the set, but why stop there? Just because I had never heard of this film before, doesn’t mean that it won’t be entertaining. After all, there were a lot of heavy-hitters in this movie, including Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close, Antonio Banderas, Wynona Rider, Vanessa Redgrave, Maria Conchita Alonso and more. I decided to check the film out.
Set in Chile and based on La Casa de la Espiritus, a novel by Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits stars Jeremy Irons as Esteban Trueva, an ambitious young man who wants more than living in poverty with a sick mother and spinster sister. He presents himself to the del Valle family as a suitor for their oldest daughter, Rosa (Teri Polo). Unfortunately, by the time he earns enough money to make himself worthy of her hand, Rosa has been killed by poison meant for her father.
Determined to make a life for himself away from his family, Esteban purchases the hacienda Tres Marias and, as El Patron, works alongside the natives to make the hacienda profitable. It is a lonely life and Esteban seeks to fill the void left by Rosa's death, something he will live to regret later in life. Twenty years later, now a successful and respected man, Esteban returns to his childhood home after learning that his mother has died. At the funeral, he spots Clara (Meryl Streep), Rosa's clairvoyant sister, and wonders if the del Valle family will grant him her hand in marriage.
At first, Esteban's sister Ferula (Glen Close) cautions against the marriage, citing Clara's eccentricities and the manner in which she has comported herself since her sister's death. However, Ferula relents when Clara treats her as family and invites her to stay with them at Tres Marias. Ferula eventually falls in love with Clara, something Esteban cannot abide by.
In fact, Esteban's jealous ways when it comes to what he sees as his much loved possessions will eventually be his downfall. And when the country falls into a state of unrest, Esteban's actions put the lives of those he loves in danger and threaten to destroy his hard-won wealth and all that he values.
The above summary of The House of the Spirits is severely lacking. The fact is that there is so much going on in this film that every time I tried to summarize it, I found myself rambling on and on and giving away too much of the film. When it hit the theaters, The House of the Spirits was considered a huge flop judging from the box office receipts. And yet, I enjoyed the film for all of its complexity. It's not just a drama with references to Chilean history, but also a supernatural film, featuring spirits and visions and more. There's romance against all odds, romance that lasts over years and miles, forbidden romance.
It would seem that this epic tale contains something for everyone, yet somehow it didn't do well in the theaters. The acting wouldn't be the reason. Meryl Streep and Wynona Ryder are great in their roles. Jeremy Irons puts on a performance that creates a love/hate relationship with his character. Antonio Banderas is fiery and sexy in his role as a revolutionary and the lover of Esteban and Clara's daughter Blanca (Ryder). But the standout performance here is Glenn Close as the tortured sister Ferula, a woman who has never been with a man and has no understanding of her feelings for her new sister-in-law. The torture of realizing that her love can never truly be realized and the repeated verbal abuses from her brother make the viewer really feel for Ferula and lament her ultimate fate. The movie's scenery is amazing - the Spanish architecture, the colorful clothing, the gorgeous countryside. The music by Hans Zimmer is incredibly moving and dramatic.
However, there are some criticisms to be made here. For one thing, the title doesn't seem to match the content of the film. Also, the main characters roles are Latino, yet most of the roles are fulfilled by actors of non-Latino descent. Clara's "abilities" show up here and there throughout the film, but are never truly elaborated on, making them seem like a strange sort of add-in to make the tale juicier in some way. There are some flaws in the writing near the end of the film which negatively effect the dramatic feel of the final scenes in the film.
That being said, I'm actually glad that I saw The House of the Spirits. I enjoyed the various storylines and found the characters to be quite intriguing. Perhaps, if the movie were a tad bit longer than two hours, it wouldn't seem like there were holes in the story, but then again, that might have made the movie drag. In the end, I felt the movie could have been better, but still found myself enjoying the finished product as it is, if for no other reason than the dramatic acting of Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close. This is a movie best watched by fans of those actors as it showcases their acting abilities quite nicely. Fans of epic tales set over decades will also find the movie enjoyable, but if you are looking for a ghost story, The House of the Spirits will not be a movie for you.