Lost in La Mancha

Witness a film director's worst nightmare: the director in this case being the revered Terry Gilliam, whose ten-year quest to bring Cervantes' Don Quixote to the big screen floundered after just one week of production. But what a week! Flash floods, Spanish jets, a lead actor's prostate problems... everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and while I don't want to give the game away, it's pretty obvious that Gilliam never finished his film, so you know there's no happy ending.

Though painfully fascinating to watch, and certainly worth seeing for any filmmaker who thinks he's the only one who's ever had production problems, there is still something unsatisfying about Lost in La Mancha.

The problem is that directors Fulton and Pepe aren't true documentarians, but were simply hired hands brought on by Gilliam to shoot "behind the scenes" footage for the DVD release of his big movie (which was to be called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, starring Jean Rochefort and Johnny Depp). Fulton and Pepe got a lot more than they bargained for when things turned sour right before their eyes, but because they hadn't set out with any greater goal in mind other than to document production, once their footage became a rare glimpse at the unmaking of a major feature, they weren't prepared to do anything meaningful with it. No one can blame them, since they were as caught off guard by the production disasters as Gilliam was, but it's still a shame that they couldn't have pinned down the story a bit better.

I left feeling bummed that I will never see Gilliam's movie, but that's the only effect Lost in La Mancha had on me. Had Fulton and Pepe been better filmmakers, this could have taken on the tone of something like Startup.com, a documentary meant to showcase a can't-lose team of hotshot Internet entrepreneurs, and which wound up capturing their downfall. Those filmmakers managed to find resonance in their subjects' failure, but in Lost in La Mancha Terry Gilliam simply comes across as a giggling visionary with a doomed project.

This could have at least been a meditation on why people even bother making films, given the obstacles. But other than obvious comparisons between the futility of Gilliam's efforts and Don Quixote's tilting at imaginary windmills, Lost in La Mancha gives us little more than a smidgen of insight into how this particular director works, with a couple of moments watching Depp plying his own craft. That's still interesting stuff, especially for fans, but wait till it shows up on cable. Even the tantalizing widescreen clips from Don Quixote are shown via a video transfer!