Man of La Mancha (1972)

I'm watching old movies once in a while with my brother, though we're socially distant so we only see each other on our screens. Last week we saw Man of La Mancha, which I'd always heard was good but somehow I'd never seen, and indeed it was quite good.

As you probably know, it's based on Don Quixote, the 17th-century novel by Miguel de Cervantes. It's considered one of the first modern novels, and I tried and failed to read it once. It's long, dense, and allegorical.

In the movie, Cervantes is imprisoned for heresy, and as he's taunted by his fellow inmates, he tells them tall tales of being a knight, Don Quixote, a/k/a the Man of La Mancha. In the most famous scene from the book and movie, he loses a comical battle against a windmill he's mistakenly perceived as a monster.

It's a surreal story that keeps you unsure what's supposed to be real and what's fantasy, and it all adds up to nonsense in the end, but it's lovable nonsense. There are several klunky but painless songs and a few great ones.

It stars Peter O'Toole, Sofia Loren, and Sofia Loren's breasts. I'm abnormal in many ways but when it comes to boobies I'm an ordinary heterosexual man, but this was too much, too calculated, and too distracting. In virtually every scene that Sofia Loren is in, she's bending over in a low-cut dress sharing her ample cleavage. Her cleavage must have been had an hour of screen time, often front and center. Give me a glimpse once in a while, sure, please — but I don't need the camera swooping over endless mountain vistas.

O'Toole is great in the title role, which is to be expected — he was always great in semi-demented roles like this. Loren is a spitfire, sometimes fierce, and makes her way past the stereotypical confines of her role as a hooker with a heart of gold. As Don Quixote's sidekick, James Coco is suitably comical.

If I have any complaint beyond the boobage overload, it's that the movie's first ten minutes — in which Cervantes/O'Toole is tried for heresy — is staged as an illusion instead of reality. Everyone's wearing theatrical masks, and we see Cervantes on a stake surrounded by flames, but they're stage flames — ribbons blown by air, not actual fire. I guess it's meant to imply that his imprisonment, and even his trial and arrest for heresy, are all only in the author's mind? So there's not to be a shred of believable reality or jeopardy to anyone in the entire two hours? I don't really understand how that helps the drama, versus having him actually arrested and imperiled.

But that's a quibble, and it's all fiction anyway. It's fiction that keeps telling you it's fiction, and that's unusual, but after the first 10 or 15 minutes I found my footing in this fictional world of fiction, and everything else mostly made sense to me.



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