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LOST IN LA MANCHA

KNIGHT LITE

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Of all the windmills Don Quixote fought, he never had to face a giant quite as daunting as Jean Rochefort's prostate.

Terry Gilliam is the American ex-Python and animator who, since the breakup of the British comedy troupe, has directed elaborate fantasies like Brazil, Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. He'd wanted for years to make a film based on Cervantes' Don Quixote, and his project finally materialized in the summer of 2000: With $32 million -- all provided by European investors when Hollywood wouldn't cough up more -- Gilliam assembled a multi-national production team in Spain to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, the fanciful story of a soulless 21st-century advertising executive (Johnny Depp) who travels back in time to meet the "real" Quixote (Rochefort).

No, you didn't miss it in theaters: Gilliam's project spent a month or so in pre-production and a week on location before acts of God shut it down. They might have overcome a flood and a hailstorm on the second day of filming. But a few days later, the 70-year-old Rochefort encountered health problems in an area of his body that made it impossible for him to sit on a horse, and soon the insurance company lowered the boom.

Not that Gilliam's film looked all that good anyway, but what we get instead is Lost in La Mancha, Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's unenlightening hagiography of a putative visionary whose dream project went bust because he hired an old French actor who had to learn English to play the titular Spanish character of his film. "I like shooting things, even if it's totally useless," Gilliam says at the end of Lost in La Mancha as he waits, in frustration, for word on whether he can proceed. That's all we need to hear to understand why he never once effervesces over (or even just explains) what his film will add to cinema, literature or culture.

"Terry is a bit like Don Quixote," says Gilliam's Italian production designer, Nicola Pecorini. Gee, ya think? In the absence of Cliff and his notes, we learn from one colleague that "we don't want to see Don Quixote become sane because if he's sane, he dies." And then, when the production folds, just in case we didn't get it, this literary scholar says of Gilliam: "The most painful thing was seeing reality win over Don Quixote in the end. And it has."

All of this is laughably unsubtle. It's also unconvincing, unless being Quixote-as-filmmaker means you lose all judgment and artistic vision. When the movie's 60 or so financial backers arrive (by tour bus) for a one-day visit to the set, it's an ego circus devoid of irony. When we're told how Don Quixote fits the Gilliam canon, you almost expect the bell to ring at the end of class. And when we watch Gilliam watch Rochefort perform, then hear Gilliam declare that he's "beyond perfect," you have to wonder who lost more perspective: Gilliam, or the guys who made this pointless documentary about him. *

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