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For the love of the word

What drew an impressive cast to a small European film? Thornton Wilder's story 'Bridge of San Luis Rey.'

June 01, 2003|Lanie Goodman | Special to The Times

Malaga, Spain — Dressed in layers of lacy white robes and gold-brocaded vermilion velvet, Robert De Niro moves slowly toward the pulpit to deliver his funeral oration. A majestic hush falls over the Malaga Cathedral, in southern Spain, where more than 200 mourners have assembled. In the wake of a shocking, unfathomable catastrophe that has taken the lives of innocent victims, he is there to offer words of comfort.

The actor looks down at the row of caskets and signs the cross, then launches into a moving speech, evoking the age-old fears of unforeseen disasters -- earthquakes, tidal waves and epidemics. "Old age carries away some of our most admirable citizens," he declares solemnly. "And towers fall upon good men and women all the time."

Call it a chilling coincidence, but no, this is not an oblique reference to New York's twin towers and the 2001 terrorist attacks. De Niro's lines are straight from the pages of Thornton Wilder's 1927 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Bridge of San Luis Rey." Set in 18th century Lima, Peru, the story recounts the mysterious collapse of a bridge that has killed five people.

De Niro plays a powerful archbishop and inquisitor in the trial of Brother Juniper (Gabriel Byrne), a Franciscan missionary who witnessed the tragedy and chronicles the intertwined lives of the victims to try to understand why they died.

Wilder's enchanting novel has been filmed twice before, first in 1929, directed by Charles J. Brabin, and then in 1944 by Rowland V. Lee, without much commercial success. But that didn't stop 39-year-old Irish independent screenwriter and director Mary McGuckian ("Words Upon the Window Pane," "This the Sea," "Best") from buying the rights 10 years ago in the hope that she could have a go at the story and direct.

McGuckian wrote the screenplay and also raised nearly 80% of the financing along with her younger brother, Garrett McGuckian, to get the project rolling. With a budget of $24 million, "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," a British-Spanish-French co-production, is the most expensive European film to be shot so far this year.

But that doesn't explain why De Niro and his friend Harvey Keitel, who haven't worked together since 1997's "Copland," were reunited here this spring on the set of this philosophical wig-and-cloak, period-piece drama.

During the two scenes they share, they don't get to crack any jokes and they both sport distinguished gray beards. (Keitel plays Uncle Pio, one of the victims of the disaster.)

And De Niro has been working assiduously with a dialogue coach to neutralize his native New York accent for a "mid-Atlantic" mix of British and American.

Nor does the budget of this film, modest by Hollywood standards, explain why a top-flight cast, including Oscar winners Kathy Bates and F. Murray Abraham, along with Geraldine Chaplin and Gabriel Byrne, jumped on board after reading the screenplay.

"Every actor wants a good script, and when you start with an amazing piece of writing like Thornton Wilder's book, it's hard to pass it up," says Bates, who plays a wealthy, eccentric and lonely noblewoman, the Marquesa. "Plus Mary's adaptation is so faithful, so rich."

So were an impressive group of international young talents, such as Spanish actress Pilar Lopez de Ayala ("Mad Love"), identical-twin actor-filmmakers Mark and Michael Polish ("Twin Falls Idaho"), Belgian actress Emilie Dequenne ("Rosetta"), French stars Samuel Le Bihan ("Brotherhood of the Wolf") and Dominique Pinon ("Amelie"), and Irish actor John Lynch ("In the Name of the Father," "Sliding Doors"), who also happens to be married to McGuckian.

A timely speech

How did a relatively unknown young female director with no studio behind her manage to pull together such a cast?

"I just asked," McGuckian says with a little laugh, nibbling on bread and butter and bananas during a lunch break on the set. A slight brunet in blue jeans and a black T-shirt, with engaging, wide-set brown eyes and ready smile, McGuckian radiates an almost tangible warmth and electric energy. "When I began working on the script about five years ago, nobody wanted to make the film, so I put it aside."

But the times changed. It wasn't until British Prime Minister Tony Blair quoted from Wilder's lyrical ending of "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" in a post-Sept. 11 speech that the project took off. Blair quoted from the final stirring paragraph of the novel that evokes the bridge as a symbol for love between "the land of the living and the land of the dead." Wilder's message was that even after we are gone and eventually forgotten, ultimately all that really matters is to have been loved for a while.

Soon after the speech, the phones began ringing at McGuckian's tiny Pembridge Pictures production office in the south of France, and she dived back into the screenplay.

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