Directed by Rolf de Heer
Starring Richard Dreyfuss, Timothy Spall, Hugo Weaving, Cathy Tyson, Victor Bottenbley, Frederico Celada, Luis Hostalot, Guillermo Toledo
Antonio Bolivar (Dreyfuss) is a reclusive loner who, at 60 years of age, has lived most of his life deep in the Amazon jungle in the little town of El Idilio.
A man of few means and fewer material desires, his one earthly pleasure comes from reading romantic novels, savouring every last word and conducting a kind of stream-of-consciousness critique of the prose as he goes. After losing his young wife to malaria many years ago, Antonio now finds himself falling for a local servant girl, Josefina (Tyson), who also shares his interest in sentimental reading material.
Hugo Weaving plays Bolivar's only friend, a roaming dentist who also encourages his interest in reading. His portable dentist's chair is about the most sophisticated piece of technology in the whole town, providing the location for many a painful extraction before a crowd of onlookers both curious and fearful.
A worse fate than the dentist's chair, however, catches up with a local hunter whose actions have raised the ire of a mother jaguar searching for her (now dead) cubs. Bodies keep turning up, ripped to shreds, and eventually the local mayor (Spall) organises a hunting party to track the jaguar down and kill it for the town's collective benefit. While he knows he has the necessary skills to do so, Bolivar is reluctant to join in but eventually agrees. Along the way his mind wanders as he privately reminisces about his life in the jungle and the ghosts from the past that still haunt him.
Shot in 1999, before The Tracker and Alexandra's Project, Rolf de Heer's latest release has been a long time coming. "It was a very complicated financial setup to begin with," he explains, with just a hint of frustration in his voice. "It was a French, Dutch, Spanish and Australian official co-production, with money coming from all over the place. The film, through a number of bizarre and some not-so-bizarre reasons, got itself tangled, in all sorts of fashions financially, legally, business wise. It was just this whole epic series of events that conspired to tangle it up completely, and it was only the middle of last year that we were able to untangle the Australian end of things."
As might be expected, having so many hands jockeying for control of the tiller sometimes made it hard to remain true to his original vision for Luis Spulveda's novel. "It was very difficult, particularly in post production. In the shoot it was really a question of solving logistical problems and solving the politics with the French producer- which were substantial – but in post it was becoming increasingly difficult to do so and it was not a pleasant process. But in the end, you know, when I saw the film again last year after not having seen it for two years I thought, 'Yes. That was it, that was what I was after'."
The director remains full of admiration for his multi-national cast, who all worked well out of their personal comfort zones. "All three of them were just so wonderful to work with, and really so committed and so giving to the process in ways so far beyond the call of duty it was just incredible. You hear stuff and read stuff that says, 'such and such is difficult' and you might have expected some of that on this but it couldn't have been further from the truth."
"Tim, for example," he continues, "carries a bit of extra weight and he's English, so the heat was very difficult for him but he would just never go. There was an air-conditioned little van for him, but he would never go to it because he knew that might cause a five minute delay here or there, and that it was much better to be in that thick, muggy atmosphere and then be on set and bring that into his character. There's always waiting around on set and he could have spent a lot of time in his caravan if he'd wanted to."
American actor Richard Dreyfuss, in particular, has often tended to play hyperactive, over-the-top characters but de Heer maintains that despite a few initial reservations on both sides; their working experience was a pleasantly productive one. "We talked about it a lot beforehand, even at the point of casting, because he thought when the script first arrived that it had been sent to the wrong person. Occasionally we had to remind him that time is a completely different thing in the jungle than it is in New York. Like when he's sitting there on the wharf, waiting for the dentist to finish while he's got this book that he wants the dentist to take; his first instinct was to be waiting impatiently, and that's valid in terms of what the character might want but it's wrong in terms of how the character would express it because, having been 40 years in the jungle, time means nothing. He understood it very quickly. He's a good actor to work with in that sense; he's very intelligent, he listens, and we found a very good way to work with each other."
One flashback scene, in which Bolivar recalls the dentist extracting all of a man's teeth in one grisly session, for no reason other than a bet, is sure to make a few people squirm in their seats. Rolf de Heer agrees, with a chuckle: "It gets a great response in the cinema with 300 people there, I'll tell you. A lot of 'oohs' and 'ahs' and 'awww', and laughter yeah, it's great. It's just an incident in the book it's a memory of his; all these things are memories and it stood out in the book as demanding to be in the film, and in the end we ended up with this wonderful Dutch actor who didn't have any teeth. Therefore we could do it much more convincingly than we otherwise would have been able to. It makes a contribution to the character; to shared events between Antonio and the dentist, to the nature of both the beauty and brutality of their life in the jungle, and I liked the idea of Antonio kind of drifting off into his memories at inappropriate times."
The director adds that while filming in the jungle location was tough going at any given time, one particular sequence was fraught with danger. "Some of the jaguar stuff was difficult, very difficult. The shots where Dreyfuss and the jaguar are in the shot at the same time. The shot in the river, where Dreyfuss is in the river and he's just seen the canoe floating past that was bloody tricky because one of the blokes holding the canoe steady collapsed, screaming, into the river after he got done by a stingray and had to be fished out, still screaming; and he was only like, three metres away from Richard. And it's raining, and there's all this shit happening how he didn't dive out and onto the bank I don't know. It was really, truly brave; he just said, 'Ah let's keep going, let's get it done,' because I think that he knew that if he jumped out he'd have to jump back in again a bit later."