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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: La chronique cinéma d’Emile Breton: Don Quichotte aux champs

by Emile Breton

Honor de Cavalleria, a Spanish Film by Albert Serra, Or Don Quixote in the Fields

Translated Saturday 24 May 2008, by Isabelle Métral

Emile Breton’s movie chronicle

The sun is about to rise. An old man in a field is massaging his shoulder: is it the inevitable arthritis that matches the grey hairs on his chin, or the traces of a recent fight? The latter, rather: seeing how extremely thin he is, seeing the armour-shaped metallic plates he is struggling to put on, one knows him to be the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance, Don Quixote de la Mancha.

And so on this particular morning, when the light of a clear summer morning is allowed to dawdle on the way before it brightens up the scene, might not the old man be still bearing the traces of one of his earliest fights in a life wholly consecrated to Chivalry – a fight against a rough Biscayan whom he managed to lay out though not before the Biscayan had broken his shoulder-blade and ripped off his left ear?

And yet no image has been shown of the fight: the film starts in a meadow as fresh as meadows were in the earliest days of Creation. Nor will spectators encounter the windmills, lions, magicians or any other of the fabulous creatures that people Cervantes’ novel and are known even to those who have never read it. For Albert Serra, whose first feature-length film this is, cares nothing for the exoticism of the romances at which Cervantes levelled his spear.

Far from it. He shows the knight and his squire, Sancho Panza (both admirable non-professional actors, the former a bag of bones, the latter as plump as a capon) in the intimacy of their relationship, if one dare say, in the intervals between the battles and hallucinations when they engage in discussions or, better still, hold their peace. For Cervantes has no sooner let Sancho into the adventure, as DonQuixote sets off again on his wanderings, than he leaves them to their own devices, as if he, their maker, was now to be a mere spectator of what was to take place there beneath his eyes, namely their initiation into the ways of the world.

The spectacular feats and buffoonery for which the novel is usually remembered do not actually figure more prominently in the novel than those peaceful lulls when each discovers a treasure trove in the other. In the second book … as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza have just been tormented by bulls, they come ‘most opportunely upon a clear and limpid spring that flowed in a shady glen. Leaving Rossinante and the donkey without bit nor halter, master and servant sat down on the bank, neither in a better plight than the other. Sancho took out of his saddlebag what he would call “victuals" in his vernacular. Whereupon, a conversation starts between them in the course of which the master finds that the servant speaks “more like a philosopher than a fool”. A short time before, that fool of a master, by asking his servant to “examine and know himself, which is the most difficult knowledge imaginable” had proved to be the wisest of men. So a friendship is born.

And so the friendship persists - underlying the plot, throughout the whole book. Which the film-maker chose to follow in his reading of the novel, setting off the pair’s moments of abandon to the hospitable charms of the natural setting, their shared complicity, whether grumbling (on the master’s side), or respectful (on the servant’s).

“You’re sleeping, Sancho", declares the former, "I’m telling you, as sure as my name’s Quixote". To be at your side, I’d spend my life sleeping, but I’d have a hell of a time. Still, I love you.” And so they wake up one morning after a rainy night and the knight counts the snails that his servant cannot even see, no more than his original counterpart in the novel can imagine the armies locked in combat (two flocks of sheep, in fact) that his master is describing to him. A way for Serra to bring the story back to our own modern scale, at a time when film-makers are free to borrow wherever their culture will direct them - free to follow on the leisurely footsteps of two full-grown men who stop on the bank of a river where the water is cool and splash each other like the boys they still are, boys who play at being wandering knights, wearing crowns of laurel on their brows, far from the public gaze.

This interpretation is truest to the spirit of the novel: it unfolds like an adventure, the adventure of making the film, with a portable camera following on the traces of another knight maybe, this time a Catalan. Tirant le blanc (Tirant the white man), written in the fifteenth century by Joannot Martorell, a man with a passion for precedence, whose Livre des batailles (Book of battles) Denis Fernandez Recatala has translated: at the beginning of this strange novel, an old hermit explains to young Tirant in what consists “the honour of being a knight”, Honor de cavalleria. It is precisely that kind of honour, the rule that makes for a life full of conquests (real or imaginary), that Albert Serra’s Quixote serves best: so it is that a film weaves the dreams of one author into those of another.

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