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Terry Gilliam's The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is finally here

After a 30-year struggle, Terry Gilliam’s passion project about Don Quixote rides into town.

Legend tells of a saga passed down through the decades. It is about a man driven mad, wandering the Andalusian desert, battling tyrants and betrayers, and consumed with a fable written long before his time.

By now, of course, director Terry Gilliam’s near-biblical struggle to adapt Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th-century masterpiece, The Ingenious Gentleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha, is well known: a 30-year torrent of setback and failure, including funding troubles, dead stars, “acts of god”, the Spanish air force and court disputes. It spawned the 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha, on the hell and carnage of trying to get the movie made.

In the end, the veteran fantasy director did get it made. And despite an 11th-hour injunction on the eve of its 2018 Cannes premiere, here it is, as the title cards proudly proclaim: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, “a Terry Gilliam film”.

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What a pleasure to find that Don Quixote is every bit the hysterical, absurdist, cacophonous carnival it ought to be: a puzzle box of dreams, flashbacks, hallucinations, roman à clefs, film sets and costume parties. It’s an elaborate and ecstatic reverie that still somehow captures the naive courage of its hero.

But who is the hero? Adam Driver plays Toby, an egotistical adman shooting a commercial in Spain. When production stalls (ha ha), Toby returns to the small village where, as a student, he once shot a low-budget Don Quixote. He discovers the humble shoemaker who played the knight errant (an extraordinary Jonathan Pryce) has tipped over into believing the fiction. He now roams the countryside searching for worlds to conquer and, above all, his great love, Dulcinea.

Thus the pompous director must become the peasant sidekick, Sancho Panza. Two figures, well out of touch with reality. “This will be a marvellous day for adventure! I can feel it in my bones!” Quixote exclaims. “I need to call my office,” Toby replies bitterly.

Gilliam’s own fevered experience has given him a taste of the mania in Cervantes’ text, and the film is a tribute to limitless imagination and extravagant flights of fancy, full of strange diversions and confected set pieces. In a way, it pays to know just how fraught the film’s journey has been, all the better to appreciate the metapoint being made: good art demands an undying devotion, even if it takes the maker to the edge of insanity.

Don Quixote is by no means flawless. The psychoactive quality wears off with 30 minutes to go, and some of the moral heart is swamped by those constant oddities. Nevertheless, it’s remarkable to witness: a demonstration of Gilliam’s vision and sheer bloody-mindedness.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★1/2

This article was first published in the June 1, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.