The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

October 19, 2020

Last night sat down with my wife Dess to watch “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.” 

I have no desire to see any of the straight retellings of the novel, because none of them appear to be very good.  This one is not a straight retelling; I think of it actually as a Quixote 2.0.  Terry Gilliam is essentially playing Cervantes here, making a commentary for our times, similar to Cervantes’ own commentary/satire, and borrowing some of his characters and scenes. 

The movie has the same central theme of appearance-versus-reality.  And modern-day cinema stands in for the chivalric books of the 17th century, as the medium that, at its worst, can distort people’s minds.  The movie is essentially asking what would happen if a man called himself, and acted like, Don Quijote today – but with the famous Cervantes novel already existing within the world of the movie.  This is not liking bringing Superman into a modern-day period in which no one has yet heard of Superman; or like doing the same with Hamlet.  In this movie, an old man – a shoemaker living in Spain – starts calling himself Don Quijote, and everyone in the movie knows what that means, because the main characters are filmmakers/advertisers who are trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to make a commercial based on “Don Quixote.”

So Don Quijote gets to ride again, this time in the 21st century, where of course he appears out of place and centuries behind the times – but then, that’s how Cervantes thought of him even in 1605.  So, yes, it’s a little jarring to watch Don Quijote riding horseback in a time when motorcycles and helicopters are roaring around him.  But jarring is exactly the effect Cervantes aimed for, too.

Dess saw a lot of commentary in the movie about the illusions that inhabit and hobble our political scene today.  The central baddie, who seems to be a Russian oligarch of some kind, is likened to Trump at one point.  I wondered, too, if he was meant to represent Harvey Weinstein.  But that’s assuming he was meant to represent any one person, because I think Gilliam’s movie is more subtle than that, and works on many levels.  In that, too, it resembles the novel.

And the movie does not draw a certain line between what’s “real”, on the one hand, and what’s a fantasy or dream or illusion on the other.  It actually gets downright confusing at times, but in a way that successfully draws you in further and makes you ask questions about what reality is. 

And, at least in the first half, it’s very funny – another way in which it does what the novel does.  In the second half the movie does lose its humor, which I think is a genuine flaw; it feels then as if it’s taking itself too seriously, though the themes and ideas are still being worked over and mixed around just as successfully as in the first half.

I really have to see it again, to feel like I can give it a fair shake.  Both Dess and I feel that it’s a better movie than we had expected, more complex.  I feel like there are layers here I have only scratched.

I like how the Moors and the Inquisition of the 17th century are brought into this movie:  you see them in costume, as their 17th-century versions, and as illegal Arab immigrants hounded by modern immigration authorities.  As in the novel, some are trying very hard to be seen as Christians.

I loved Jonathan Pryce’s Don Quijote.  He really cuts the figure of a lovely man-turned-knight.  He’s not quite Cervantes’ knight – he’s a little more cuckoo than intellectual – but he carries himself with dignity and we love him. 

The surprising thing is that he ends up being the straightest arrow in the whole movie.  By the end, he seems to be the only person left who’s decent and honest and is not losing his head.  Everyone else has descended into various levels of madness or illusion.  The “crazy” one in this picture is actually Sancho.  And when Don Quijote dies, his squire becomes the new Quixote.

But then you kind of see DQ himself riding on that horse at the end, so I’m not exactly clear what happened!

There are many elements of the novel that are replicated, echoed or twisted around in the movie. Here are just a few (spoilers for book and movie ahead):

  • Don Quijote says that the author of his history is Sidi Hamid Benengali.  As in the novel, this history has been translated for others.  But in the movie, Don Quijote has a copy, and it’s in English!  I mean, it makes sense that the history by “Benengali” should be translated into the languages present in 21st-century Spain.  But this man is a Spanish shoemaker who speaks Spanish and, in a running gag, mispronounces “squire.”  So why is his copy in English?  He doesn’t even indicate that it’s a translation.  Of course, in a movie today it’s common for everyone to be speaking English, even if the setting is Spain.  So none of this has to make sense.  I do love it when DQ says to Sancho/Toby that English is “a very difficult language.”
  • The police are referred to as the Holy Brotherhood, also as the Inquisition.  Modern-day Arabs hounded by the police stand in for the Moors of the 17th century.
  • Angélica is seen bathing in the mountains, like Dorotea; and her father calls her a whore, which is what Dorotea, having lost her virginity, would have feared being called.  But Angélica doesn’t have Dorotea’s spirit or wit; and she’s more deeply damaged, over the course of several years actually working as an escort and suffering in an abusive relationship with Bad Russian Man.  On the other hand, Angélica is a damsel “in distress” with a twist, because she does not always seem to want to be rescued.
  • Don Quijote is humiliated by being made to ride on that horse into the sky, for the benefit of a fictitious princess and her bearded ladies-in-waiting, though, as I said, in the movie none of this remotely funny.  In the novel, the princess speaks for so long about her sufferings that it’s actually funny when all this anguish turns out to be nothing more than beards.
  • Don Quijote “comes to his senses” at the end of the movie, saying that you can’t find birds in last autumn’s nest; and his squire tries unsuccessfully to get him back into the dream.  At that point, in the movie, a genuine knight in shining armor would be desperately useful – or so it appears.  In the end you can’t be sure how much of what’s going on in that castle is real danger, or fantasy-play by its inhabitants, or Sancho’s own madness.  It’s all so intertwined, I just want to see it again.

Something that bothers me is that everyone in the movie appears to have read Cervantes’ novel, but if they have, then they’re consciously imitating episodes in it, or they should recognize episodes taken straight out of it.  Now in Don Quijote’s case, this is not problem, because he’s actually trying to imitate somebody.  And maybe it’s not a problem in the case of the Russian Bad Dude, because he can see the book as a script for the malicious fun he wants to have.  But why doesn’t Toby/Sancho ever say, “This is straight out of the book, this can’t be happening; it has to be a dream, or a hoax”?  He does express incredulity at various incredible things that happen his way, but only because they’re incredible, not because he recognizes them.  I guess he’s never read the book, but in the flashbacks he is seen talking about the book knowledgeably while making a student film called “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.”  And when he sees Don Quijote starting to charge windmills, anyone in the world would say, “Oh come on, not the windmill thing, don’t go there,” but all he does is protest that it’s a windmill.

Oh well, none of this is perfect, and it’s not meant to make neat sense.  The bickering between DQ and his squire, leading up to the windmill charge, is wonderful, and easily the best part of the film.

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