Friday August 11, 1995
Alfonso Arau's romantic fable "A Walk in the Clouds" is so confounding a miscalculation that its every development causes your jaw to drop in sheer amazement.
Had this tempestuous love story been set in the immediate aftermath of World War I instead of World War II and been made then as a silent movie, it might have become a classic in a form and in an era more congenial to extravagant melodrama and patent make-believe. "A Walk in the Clouds" has an uncanny similarity to the equally misfired "A Time of Destiny," the largely forgotten '40s saga Gregory Nava made for Columbia release between "El Norte" and "My Family."
Considering the artificiality of "A Walk in the Clouds," it is astonishing to consider that it is based upon Alessandro Blasetti's 1942 more modest "Four Steps in the Clouds," which has been described by the late film historian Ephraim Katz as "a marvelously restrained tender romance which is widely acknowledged as an important forerunner of Italian neorealism." (Fernandel starred in a 1957 French remake, "The Virtuous Bigamist.")
"Restrained" is the last word that could describe "A Walk in the Clouds," the first English-language feature from Arau, whose wonderful "Like Water for Chocolate" became the top-grossing foreign film of all time. "Clouds' " sheer gorgeousness, full-bodied Maurice Jarre score and deliberately obvious use of sets and matte shots announce right off that we've entered a "magic realism" universe.
The film begins with returning G.I. Paul Sutton (Keanu Reeves) discovering the enormity of the mistake of his quickie wartime marriage to a floozy (Debra Messing)--shades of Dana Andrews and Virginia Mayo in "The Best Years of Our Lives."
Aboard a train bound for Sacramento from San Francisco, the fleeing Paul "meets cute"--an old Hollywood term for two young people colliding with each other, dropping stuff and discovering mutual attraction as they pick it up--a beautiful young woman, Victoria Aragon (Spanish actress Aitana Sanchez-Gijon).
She's heading for home in Napa Valley, where her aristocratic family, which can trace its ancestry back 400 years in Mexico, owns vineyards. Victoria is facing the unthinkable: telling her ultra-traditional father that she is pregnant but unmarried. Paul gallantly insists on passing himself off as her bridegroom, but there is that ticklish problem of his own marital status. . . .
The Aragon holdings prove to be a virtual Shangri-La, as vast as the eye can see and dominated by an estate that could easily be mistaken for one of Father Serra's grandest missions. Presiding over this kingdom is no gentle High Lama but Victoria's bombastic father, Alberto (Italian actor Giancarlo Giannini), threatening to remain in a permanent state of apoplexy over his beloved daughter's surprise "marriage." Not even family patriarch Don Pedro (Anthony Quinn), given to endless dispensing of wisdom, can calm him down.
Even so, life * chez Aragon seems a near-nonstop fiesta, as the family joyfully joins in picking grapes, with Victoria's grandmother (Evangelina Elizondo) even giving her ancestral Aztec blessing on the harvest. All this is so determinedly exuberant, so self-consciously folkloric, that it seems relentlessly contrived and not just a little silly. (Never mind that the family's accents don't match or that it's odd that any generation after Don Pedro should have an accent.)
Arau simply makes too many demands upon our capacity to suspend disbelief. That's too bad, because Reeves and the exquisite Sanchez-Gijon are themselves enchanting young lovers we're able to care about. The irony is that had "Like Water for Chocolate" been only half as successful and consequently Arau been given half as much money with which to indulge himself, "A Walk in the Clouds" just might have been twice as good.
A Walk in the Clouds, 1995. PG-13, for moments of sensuality and war action. A 20th Century Fox presentation of a Zucker Brothers production. Director Alfonso Arau. Producers Gil Netter, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker. Executive producer James D. Brubaker. Screenplay by Robert Mark Kamen and Mark Miller & Harvey Weitzman. Based on "Four Steps in the Clouds; story and screenplay material by Piero Tellini, Cesare Zavattini and Vittorio de Benedetti. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Editor Don Zimmerman. Costumes Judy L. Ruskin. Music Maurice Jarre. Production designer David Gropman. Art director Daniel Maltese. Set decorator Denise Pezzini. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes. Keanu Reeves as Paul Sutton. Aitana Sanchez-Gijon as Victoria Aragon. Anthony Quinn as Don Pedro Aragon. Giancarlo Giannini as Alberto Aragon.