Based on the bestseller by Isabel Allende this is the story of three generations of a family in Chile during the 20th century. It also shows the change in the mentality of parents and children alongside with the movement from totalitarism to democracy experienced by many countries during the last century.
Both film and book are an example of the South American literary movement known as “Magic Realism” and as the name suggests, this means that a sugarless reality is portrayed in the story, but generously sparkled with magic and imagination, making a complex mixture that has its charm in the book, but loses everything on the screens.
Esteban Trueba (Jeremy Irons) is a poor but hard-working man who is in love with the beautiful Rosa del Valle. When she dies accidentally poisoned he buys an “hacienda” in the middle of nowhere and turns it into one of the most prosperous in the country. Time goes by and Rosa’s younger sister, Clara (Meryl Streep), a clairvoyant and imaginative girl who had made vow of silence after the death of her sister, breaks her silence to predict her marriage to Rosa’s former fiancé. They marry and go to live to Tres Marias, the hacienda with Esteban’s sister, Férula (Glenn Close), a bitter spinster who develops a sick attraction to her sister-in-law due to the sweet character of Clara and her solitude. Clara has a child named Blanca (Wynona Ryder) and when the girl grows up, she falls in love with the son of the main employee of the hacienda, Pedro (Antonio Banderas). Esteban disapproves of the romance and throws him out of the hacienda, because of his low status and his revolutionary ideas. Clara leaves Esteban because he has beaten her during an argument about Blanca, and goes to the city with her pregnant daughter. There, she gives birth to Alba.
Meanwhile Esteban becomes a Conservative senator, at the same time as Pedro, his non-recognized son-in-law, gets popularity as a socialist leader. When the socialists win the elections, there’s a military coup to bring the right back to the power again. Blanca is captured and questioned because of her relationship with Pedro, and Esteban has to struggle with his mistakes of the past and with his former ideas and feelings to save her daughter and his hated son-in-law as he slowly understands that nothing is as it was in the past, and that the most important things are love and family.
Having heard that the novel “La casa de los espíritus” by Isabel Allende had been adapted to screens and, although books made into films are rarely as good, I watched “The house of spirits” with no prejudices. It was highly disappointing!
The Danish filmmaker Bille August tried to put on the screens a very complex story full of passion and tragedy and he didn’t succeed on apprehending the real spirit of the novel. He used non-hispanic actors for the main characters (with the exception of Banderas and this is not by far his best work) and although the performances are correct there’s something unreal, unconvincing and cold, about all the film. Besides many charming passages of the book were omitted. Therefore it isn’t surprising that the film was a flop.
I only recommend the movie to enthusiastic readers of the novel because this is not a good film in any artistic way. It can provide you with an entertaining time but there are lots of good films to be seen and they are much more worthwhile. On the other hand, I thoroughly recommend the novel.