Don Quijote de Orson Welles (1992)
Directed by Orson Welles & Jess Franco

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * ½

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Having read so many romances about the deeds of great heroes that he has lost his mind, a minor Spanish nobleman (Francisco Reiguera) adopts the name 'Don Quijote' and sets out to become a knight errant. Recruiting a local peasant, Sancho Panza (Akim Tamiroff), to serve as his squire, he wanders through a Spain mingling that of the early Seventeenth Century with that of the middle Twentieth and searches for marvellous deeds to perform in the name of his beloved Dulcinea, a farm girl he has never had the courage to address. After fighting giants that look suspiciously like windmills, trying to rescue a maiden captured by a monster resembling a moped, and spying princesses who have been changed by a sorcerer into peasant women, Don Quijote grows discouraged and sends Sancho Panza off to find Dulcinea for him. Some time after the two have so separated, Sancho starts to miss his master and returns to him. Unfortunately, Don Quijote has disappeared. Sancho Panza therefore sets out to locate the man, to whom he has become attached, and discovers a strange new country filled with televisions, telescopes, and rockets.

Much of Don Quijote was directed by Orson Welles, but at the time of his death, the work remained unfinished. Years later, Jess Franco, the exploitation auteur who had served as Welles' second unit director during the making of Chimes at Midnight, took it upon himself to complete the film. It is, consequently, difficult to tell whose hand is behind many aspects of the movie. What this means, of course, is that it is often impossible to determine who is responsible for Don Quijote's virtues and who is responsible for its faults. To make matters worse, the film is very uneven. At its best, it is brilliant, but, at its worst, it is tedious and awkward. Since we will never know what the movie would have been like had Welles completed it, we are, however, forced to evaluate what we have.

Fortunately, there is much in the movie to recommend it. The performances of the two leads are wonderful. The cinematography is frequently gorgeous, and there is a sense of fun that suffuses the film for a large part of its duration.

Reiguera and Tamiroff are, perhaps, the best things about Don Quijote. I cannot even imagine two persons better suited to the roles. The former, with his crazed eyes, elongated face, skinny torso and limbs, and wonderfully proud and eccentric expressions, really is Cervantes' character given flesh. The actor brings out both Don Quijote's lunacy and his dignity. The latter is just as good, however. The viewer, instead of seeing Tamiroff on screen, is only aware of the earthy, rather stupid, but also loyal and devoted squire. The pair are consistently captivating to watch.

Happily, the deeds of the two are often as engaging as they are as individuals. Whether Welles is showing Don Quijote's fascination with his trashy chivalric romances, that so carry him away that he leaves his sanity behind, or the man's musings about honor and adventure, or even the actions he performs in his attempts to live as a knight errant, the director allows the viewer to immerse himself in the events shown and to feel the character's emotions. The moviegoer, thus, is sure to be sad when Sancho Panza deceives his master when the latter meets three peasant women he thought were princesses (by telling him that they must have been enchanted by a sorcerer). He is just as sure to be amused by the knight's assault on a group of windmills he mistakes for giants or by the man's frequent, and nobly pointless, resolutions and fasts. Some of the occurrences are funny. Many are tragic, and all are invested with a real humanity.

Such moments are made all the better by the skill with which they were filmed. Welles clearly knew how to compose his shots so as to capture the magic of his imaginary world. Don Quijote's Spain is just beautiful, and it is filled with characters who look as though they live in the paintings of some great master or another.

As many virtues as the movie has, I must admit that it is deeply flawed. The second half of Don Quijote does drag. In this, Sancho Panza wanders through modern Spain looking for his master, but the man's repetitious adventures seem interminable. After the viewer has heard Sancho Panza ask about the thousandth person if he has seen Don Quijote, it is likely he will discover himself losing interest in the peasant's quest. It should have been drastically reduced in length. The film does improve in its last few minutes, and is able to conjure up a final sense of melancholy, but it takes a bit of endurance to get to this part. Unfortunately, there are other problems with Don Quijote. The worst of these are largely a result of how the film was made and given its present form. The images can be less than clear or even murky, and some of the dialogue is spoken by actors other than the originals. Such inconsistencies are, I will admit, distracting, but, given the way the movie came to be finished, they are not surprising.

Whatever its faults, and they are severe, Don Quijote is still worth watching. At its best, it is a captivating film, and, even at its worst, it is a noble failure.

Review by Keith Allen

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