Documentary Review: Terry Gilliam tilts at one last windmill, “He Dreams of Giants”

Visionary writer-director Terry Gilliam‘s “Quixotic” thirty year pursuit of getting his idea for a Don Quixote movie on screen ended a couple of years ago when “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” finally premiered and went on to a desultory and dispirited big screen release.

After all the many incarnations of the cast, with Robert Duvall and Ewan McGregor and John Hurt on board different iterations, and Johnny Depp and Jean Rochefort on set and shooting when a 2000 version of it fell apart six days into production, a debacle documented in “Lost in La Mancha,” the film itself felt like a competently-done afterthought, an anti-climax starring Jonathan Pryce and Adam Driver.

But what does that make the follow-up documentary about it that the “Lost in La Mancha” team filmed, “He Dreams of Giants?”

Gilliam has chuckled and explained away to me and other interviewers the decades of “bad luck” that made him feel like a “cursed” filmmaker. His studio had to be bullied into releasing “Brazil,” others simply sold finished films (“The Brothers Grimm”) to another distributor or released and abandoned “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.” Co-star Heath Ledger died just as “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” — his last widely-acclaimed, widely-seen movie — was winding up filming.

But seven different times “Man Who Killed Don Quixote” was a “go” picture. And when filming got underway in Spain in 2000, NATO bombing range flyovers, torrential rains and an infirm star (Rochefort) seemed to put an end to a dream the cartoonist, Monty Python wit and “Twelve Monkeys” director had harbored since the late ’80s.

Talk about “cursed.”

Pepe and Fulton, occasionally casting questions Gilliam’s way off camera on the set of a movie being attempted with half the already-thin budget of nearly 20 years before, document a reflective wizened Gilliam, stressed, still forcing out a laugh, still summoning up some enthusiasm as he stubbornly gets this movie monkey off his back at last.

“Art is hard,” he grins. The idea that it should be fun…who the f— came up with that?”

He reads from his beautiful, ancient Gustave Doré illustrated copy of Miguel Cervantes’ novel — “Too much sanity may be madness… But the maddest of all is to see life as it is and not as it should be.”

He compares his quest to that of his idol, Federico Fellini whose “8 1/2” (sampled here) became a mad, dreamy movie “without an ending” about making a movie without having an ending.

Gilliam is on the phone talking about financing even after production has started, laments that “the marketplace has no faith in this film” and we see clips of “Tidelands” and “The Zero Theorem,” movies he made which virtually no one saw.

Gilliam either sits with meditative patience in his director’s chair, animatedly sprints through what he wants his co-star, Driver, to do or downloads a year’s worth of f-bombs about “losing our light” or “losing a day” or “falling behind.” Only his intrepid director of photography, Nicola Pecorini, can talk him down.

But not by walkie talkie. Gilliam can’t get the damned things to work and jogs 100 yards or more to pass on another last minute instruction.

Before this shoot was over with, the man was wearing a catheter, was pushing 80, and looked it.

“More foolish and stupid than heroic,” he grumps of this exercise.

With many of those cast as his aged title character too infirm to finish, dying before shooting started (Hurt) or simply dropping out (Duvall, the only horseman of the lot), star Pryce is a good sport in declaring that his “Brazil” director “was just waiting for me to get old enough to play Don Quixote.

Driver, bless him, isn’t a “box office” star but was and is a big enough name to get the film financed, shot and released, and deserves any “what a trouper” accolades thrown his way. But he didn’t talk to the documentary filmmakers, or didn’t give permission for them to use any interviews for the finished film. That’s not exactly an endorsement of the experience or the finished product.

It would be nice if this generally laudatory, understated and reflective film served as Gilliam’s victory lap. It captures his dogged persistence and his artist’s eye, and humanizes him by letting us see him playing with his son in home movies, then playing with his grandchild in others. He got “Quixote” finished, got a standing ovation at Cannes for accomplishing that, and can now sit back and be interviewed about his career and films or Python or his favorite artists, a grand old man of the arts.

But Old Man Gilliam, like one other aged Python, keeps sticking his foot in it with this or that public statement (or being #MeToo’d by actresses on Twitter) and whining about being “canceled” for it. If he’s not careful, that’s what he’ll be remembered for and not “Time Bandits,” “Brazil,” “Twelve Monkeys” and “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.”

“Cursed” or not, it’s hard to not see a pattern here, and hard not to feel that his greatest fear for “Quixote,” that he’d “disappoint the fans,” actually came true.

Rating: unrated, profanity and lots of it

Cast: Terry Gilliam, Nicola Pecorini, Joana Ribeiro, Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce

Credits: Directed by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe. A Bohemia Media release.

Running time: 1:25

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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