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Australia 2001
Directed by
Rolf de Heer
115 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Ruth Williams
3.5 stars

The Old Man Who Read Love Stories

Antonio Bolivar (Richard Dreyfuss) lives a reclusive life in a hut on the outskirts of El Idilio, a far-from-ideal European outpost deep in the Amazon jungle. His main pleasure in life is reading love stories. The jungle holds memories of an earlier time that he would rather forget. Antonio is drawn back into the jungle when the mayor (Timothy Spall) decides to hunt down a grief-stricken jaguar that has tasted human blood and seems determined to kill the remaining population.

In talking about The Old Man Who Read Love Stories, Rolf de Heer has said that the film ‘most closely represents something of the essence of who I am”. How often is it said that at the heart of the work of any artist, there is but one story? Looking back over de Heer’s body of work, what stands out is his ability to speak for the loner; for those that don’t fit neatly into the mainstream. Antonio Bolivar is one of those people. The townsfolk see him as little more than the crazy old man who spends night after night reading romance novels he borrows from the mayor’s servant, Josefina (Cathy Tyson).

The arrival of the first badly-mauled body soon reveals there is much more to Antonio than a penchant for reading. While the corrupt mayor, played with overweening relish by Timothy Spall, would be more than happy to see the last of the old man, he realises that without Antonio, they would have little hope of finding the jaguar, let alone capturing it. Once on the trail, it isn’t long before Antonio decides to send the rest of the hunting party back to town, based on an uneasy feeling that the jaguar is really interested in him. Indeed the real stars of the film are the jaguar and the jungle she inhabits.

The enveloping claustrophobia of the jungle is captured by the cinematography of Denis Lenoir whilst the musical score by composer Graham Tardif and sound design by James Currie set the emotional tone of melancholy surrender. Initially when Richard Dreyfuss was suggested as the lead role, de Heer wasn’t sure that he was the right actor for the part (his original choices were Ben Kingsley, followed by Morgan Freeman). After watching forty hours of material, he saw two moments where he felt Dreyfuss displayed what he was looking for, and the actor doesn’t let him down. From the candle-lit scenes where Antonio lovingly reads every word with great respect to the final confrontation with the jaguar, the actor skilfully and sensitively portrays this reflective older man. Hugo Weaving as a travelling dentist with at-best dubious skills wins us over as a charming rascal.

De Heer’s respect for the original inhabitants is clear and the film recalls John Boorman's 1985 eco-polemic The Emerald Forest as well as Werner Herzog's South American trilogy, not least for the evidently demanding shooting conditions.




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