Esperanto Epic

IF YOU COULD JUDGE A MOVIE ON ITS credentials alone, The House of the Spirits would already be halfway to heaven. The prestige cast couldn't be more enticing: Jeremy Irons, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Vanessa Redgrave, Winona Ryder, Antonio Banderas and Armin Mueller-Stahl. The writer-director, Bille August, made the award-winning "Pelle the Conqueror" and "The Best Intentions." The story, a tumultuous 50-year family saga encompassing politics, passion, mysticism and revenge, comes from the acclaimed novel by Isabel Allende. It's handsomely shot, sumptuously produced, nobly intentioned. And it unfolds, sadly, like the longest trailer ever made.

What went awry? The simplest answer is that you can't tell this story-the chronicle of a South American family from 1926 into the '70s-in one rushed two-hour-and-11-minute movie. The greatest actors in the world can't overcome a script that boils everything down to the Esperanto of cliche. A brutal right-wing patriarch (Irons)! A clairvoyant, ethereal earth mother (Streep) and a lonely spinster aunt (Close)! A handsome revolutionary rabble rouser (Banderas) and the rebellious daughter who falls in love with him (Ryder)! Though set in a mythical South American country, this story is rooted in the tragic history of Chile. (The novelist is the niece of President Salvador Allende Gossens, who died in a coup d'etat much like the one in this story.) But one never feels the rhythms or smells the scents of a particular culture. This German-produced movie, shot in Portugal and Copenhagen by a Danish director with an English-speaking cast, aims for universality. What it achieves, too much of the time. is inauthenticity.