Release Date(s)1993 (April 7, 2023)
Studio(s)Neue Constantin Film (Imprint/Via Vision)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B
[Editor’s Note: This is a Region Free Blu-ray import.]
Isabel Allende, niece of the assassinated Chilean president Salvador Allende, wrote The House of the Spirits as a family saga, fairy-tale romance, violent social history, and mystical fantasy. The novel follows four generations of a Chilean family from the 1920s to the 1970s. The film adaptation blends these elements into a sprawling melodrama.
It opens in 1923 with young girl Clara (Grace Gummer) first seeing Esteban Trueba (Jeremy Irons) when he comes to her family’s home to propose to her older sister. Clara knows through her gift of psychic powers that he will one day marry her instead. Her ability to see into the future attracts crowds of townspeople who want her to advise them. Occasionally, she remains mute for long periods.
When she comes of age, Clara (Meryl Streep) does marry Esteban, no longer a poor striver but a rich plantation owner who exploits his workers with a cruel and vicious hand and rapes peasant women with impunity. One of his illegitimate offspring is a resentful son who figures dramatically into the story as an adult.
Clara invites Esteban’s sister, Ferula (Glenn Close), a spinster with no means of her own, to live with them, and Esteban becomes jealous of the bond that forms between his sister and his wife. Clara knows of Esteban’s philandering but remains loyal and doesn’t confront him directly. Together, Ferula and Clara symbolize the silent ordeals of women of their time.
When Clara and Esteban’s daughter, Blanca (Winona Ryder), comes of age, she’s attracted to revolutionary peasant Pedro Garcia (Antonio Banderas). Discovering their relationship, Esteban tries to kill Pedro repeatedly, incensed not only because he feels Pedro is beneath his daughter’s station, but also because Pedro attempts to rally the workers to demand better working conditions. Ultimately, Esteban’s family troubles and a political coup combine to destroy the Trueba family.
The most enviable aspect of The House of the Spirits is its all-star cast. This A-list group of actors attempts to capture the essence of the novel in a film that depends largely on dialogue to replace Allende’s descriptive narrative. There’s a lot happening in the film. Writer-director Billie August had to consolidate much of the book in order to retain the essentials. The result is mere snapshots of the characters except for Esteban, who gets the most screen time. Esteban is not a sympathetic character. He’s arrogant and controlling, a brutal master, a rapist, imperious toward workers and family alike. Even his sister fears him, and Clara responds to his violent behavior by completely detaching herself from him.
Streep’s Clara is an odd character. Clara’s supernatural ability is established early on but diminishes as the film progresses. Streep has an excellent scene with Close when their characters first meet, immediately bond, and Ferula breaks down in tears, confiding to Clara that she’s not accustomed to kindness. In other scenes, Streep plays Clara as an ethereal being, performing at a level apart from her co-actors.
Close is quite effective as Ferula, who comes alive when Esteban marries and brings Clara to his plantation. As her ailing mother’s sole caregiver, Ferula has never been free to have a social life or marry. Esteban is their sole support and after the old woman dies, Ferula has little choice but to remain dependent on her brother. Living in Esteban’s house, she assumes the role of housekeeper, seeing to the needs of her brother and his family, a repressed servant with no life of her own. She’s both pathetic and tragic, her only happiness derived from having Clara to talk to.
Winona Ryder dominates the final third of the film, when she becomes a pawn in the coup that roils the country. She has a few rough physical scenes which she handles convincingly, but other times she appears to be treading water in contrast with her more experienced co-stars.
Banderas smolders as the rebellious Pedro but has little to do aside from making love with Blanca, seething against injustice, and escaping the murderous wrath of Esteban. He has a couple of scenes in which Pedro tries to move his co-workers to action, but his primary role is as the handsome and troubled romantic lead.
In terms of the magic realism that suffuses the novel, there are a few jarring scenes in which dead characters reappear. It takes a moment to realize that these apparitions are manifestations of Clara’s powers. One scene in particular is confusing and seems as if the film has taken a momentary detour into horror.
Director Billie August has created a beautiful-looking film, with locations in Portugal standing in for Santiago, Chile. The shortcomings of the film are the responsibility of August, considering the stature of the cast. The performances often lack energy. Irons may be over the top in several scenes, but other cast members appear to coast. Subtlety is fine, but it should be balanced with more spirited moments lest narrative become dreary. The film tends to plod along, especially toward the end, when pace should accelerate but lumbers along despite the dramatic change in Chile under the military coup.
The House of the Spirits was shot by director of photography Jorgen Persson on 35 mm film using Panavision cameras and anamorphic lenses, presented in the widescreen format of 2.39:1. The Imprint Blu-ray features an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The film contains many beautifully composed images, such as moonbeams shining through a group of tall, willowy trees, red light flashing in a prostitute’s apartment, and black-clad Ferula in a dark confessional, her face dominating the screen. A funeral procession is filled with bright, multi-colored flowers, which contrast with the dark funeral cars and somber clothing of the mourners. Camera compositions serve the narrative and do not call attention to themselves. Costumes cover several decades and the women’s styles, in particular, change markedly with the times. Aging make-up is used for both Irons and Streep, making the physical changes in their characters credible in a decades-long story.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 LPCM. Optional English subtitles are available. The film is dialogue-heavy and all actors speak their lines clearly. A wide range of accents can be heard, but this is only initially distracting. Irons speaks with an accent that isn’t Hispanic and seems a strange choice. Notable sound effects include rifle shots, car engines, ambient crowd noise in scenes with a large number of extras, the slight sliding sound of a lamp being moved along a table top by Clara’s telekinetic ability, punches, slaps, and pummeling. The score by Hans Zimmer is used mostly for transitions and establishing shots, and is fairly unobtrusive.
Bonus materials include the following:
- Audio Commentary by Scott Harrison
- Beginning With Billie (11:03)
- Extended European Version (146:37)
In the commentary from film historian Scott Harrison, we learn that in the film, which is a co-production of Germany, Denmark and Portugal, Portugal stands in for Chile. This was Billie August’s sixth film. Two of his previous films had won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Harrison reads several extensive passages from the Isabel Allende novel. Because there are almost no positive male characters, some viewers find The House of the Spirits hard to engage with, and that the film’s cold grimness can be repellent. Esteban constantly fights back his need to explode, affecting family and workers. His wrath comes out in sexual assault, beatings, and shooting. There’s no redeeming quality in Esteban. The emotions that drive characters are negative—jealousy, anger, frustration, annoyance. Relationships are antagonistic. In the 1990s, nihilism was finding its way into motion pictures. It was the decade that saw the beginning of the decline of cinema, especially American film. Because of the book’s use of magic realism, adapting it into film was difficult. Many of its supernatural elements are downplayed or eliminated. Getting the book published was difficult. The rights to the novel were purchased by a German filmmaker, and shooting scenes in Portugal rather than Chile gave the picture a different flavor from the book. Landscapes, for example, look different. The House of the Spirits was Billie August’s first move away from Danish filmmaking. August portrays brutal moments matter-of-factly, without sensationalizing them. This makes the scenes even starker. Because Glenn Close usually plays strong or imposing characters, her performance as fragile, insecure Ferula is a departure. The book is considered a classic of Latin American literature and has won many awards. The story is a microcosm of what was happening to the country. Just as Esteban’s family was deteriorating, so was the government of Chile eroding.
Beginning With Billie – Guy Travers worked as first assistant director on The House of the Spirits. Poor enunciation and less-than-optimal sound quality make it difficult to understand much of what is said. Brief clips from the film are shown. Travers discusses his relationship with Billie August, noting that he enjoyed working on the film. They made a few films together. Jeremy Irons had definite ideas about how to approach the role. Meryl Streep wouldn’t come to the set as soon as the crew was ready to film. Travers found this rude. He discusses night filming and some incidents that could have led to injuries. To Travers, “the schedule is the most important thing.”
Extended European Version – The House of the Spirits premiered in Germany in 1993 with a 146-minute theatrical cut that was also released in other European countries. The U.S. cut was edited down to 132-minutes. The European cut has a different opening, some scenes use alternate edits, and an autopsy scene and a torture scene were trimmed. This is the German master, with opening titles in German. The audio is in English.
The House of the Spirits takes place in Chile but doesn’t have a Latin American feel. This might be due to its international co-production status and definitely has a lot to do with the name cast. Of the main actors, only Spanish-born Antonio Banderas is believable as the hot-headed and daring Pedro. The other principals are British or American and seem to be veterans of the Actors Studio staging a pageant. Confronted with a world-famous novel and a dream cast, writer/director Billie August may have been over his head in his adaptation. Though it has its memorable moments, the film is cold and distant, pushing us away rather than drawing us in.
- Dennis Seuling