In a world barren of dignity and compassion, where only naked self-interest flourishes, what is any sane and honest man to do but to make-believe?
★★★☆ Grigori Kozintsev’s 1957 film treatment is far away from Miguel de Cervantes’s then-contemporary satire of the literary world of 17th century Spain. But it is thoughtful, humourous, and well-worth seeing.
Don Quixote, the fantastical persona assumed by middling and middle-aged noble Alonso Quixano (Nikolai Cherkasov), is less an anachronistic relic of a golden past (whether real or imaginary—and in this case, imaginary)—a stubborn vassal reasserting his significance in a time that is speedily trotting past him—and more a child seeking wonder and goodness in a world which nurtures neither. His shield is endearingly embellished with a cartoonish knight’s arm emerging from a carmine heart; it looks more like a child’s craft project than anything that would be wielded by a man-at-arms. His friend Sancho Panza (Yuri Tolubeyev) jokingly dubs him the Knight of Rueful Countenance; throughout the film, Quixote resembles more a sad and shaggy dog than a man suffering from psychotic narcissism.
Quixote is much kinder in Kozintsev’s film than in Cervantes’s book. Cervantes’s Don Quixote, in the name of honour and chivalry, was not above violently abusing those he perceived to be impinging on his honour. Kozintsev’s Quixote frowns, not for his own hardships, but for the tribulations of others—the film introduces the love of his life, the farmgirl ingénue Aldonza (Lyudmila Kasyanova), cheerfully greeting him and breathlessly telling him of the birth of twin calves as her father off-screen verbally abuses her. In the book, Aldonza is only mentioned, and never present; here in the film she is a sweet and honest girl, and possibly the kindest person in Quixote’s life. But she can expect nothing more than a life of hardship and cruelty from the men around her, and the aged Quixano apprehends this more clearly than she can. He loves her, and would not hesitate to lay his life down for her. But society forbids all relations between them outside of the coldest class exploitation. So he imagines her to be the noblewoman Dulcinea del Toboso, cursed by the magician Friston, and in this way, loves her by proxy, by committing knightly deed after another in her name.
The animals outside of human society regularly strike one as the most rational in the film. The chickens who have nothing to do with knight-errantry, or any other human affair, marching into the village as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza ride out of it; Panza’s faithful and equanimous donkey-steed Dapple, who strikes one as the wisest character in the story; the lion who chooses to sleep rather than fight to add (or subtract) epithets. Quixote laments to the lion that he seems to be the only soul in the land who understands him; an alien held captive in a strange country with customs totally irrational and uncompassionate. He imagines all the people he encounters, acting rationally under the rules and conditions imposed on them by society but incomprehensible to his simple goodness, to be under Friston’s spell, reasoning away their baseness and malice as the product of sorcery. Quixote lashes out only against those who defend society as it is:
“And what do you know outside of your chapel? The power-hungry climb up corpses like stairs; the greedy kill for pennies; slanderers sting their own like vipers. I just wanted to do one thing: to do good to everyone and harm no one. And you castigate me!”
Visual comedy is not wanting in the film. Cherkasov’s Don Quixote is so tall and skinny that one is tempted to believe he walks on stilts or raised shoes throughout the film, which makes him a joy to see next to Yuri Tolubeyev’s portly Sancho Panza (whose last name means “belly”). Sancho’s garishly coloured, almost clownish attire as governor of the “Isle of Barataria” (from the Spanish word for “cheap”; “Bargainorini”) comes with a cape at least twice as long as he is tall, and is complimented by the matching garb for his donkey. Pathos regularly mixes with bathos as Quixote waxes eloquently on chivalry and beauty as his “listeners” (or just bystanders) occupy themselves with the eating of biscuits. Quixote’s dramatic summons to the Duke’s estate, quite probably in his head an epic journey and thrilling journey across beautiful Spanish vistas, is seen by the audience as an old man in the desert barely able to ride a skinny nag at full gallop. His climactic fight with the windmill is both enthralling and hilarious, accompanied by a rising triumphant score by Gara Garayev.
Throughout the film the absurdity of Quixote’s actions is juxtaposed, to great effect, against the lofty and sentimental score, which functions as an aural window into Quixote’s heart.
Quixote is stifling in a wasteland both literal and social. It is only through books that he, and through him his friend Sancho, transcend the vapidity of a social reality based on poverty, inequality, and the pursuit of personal gain above all else. Sancho, a local peasant who accompanies Quixote initially for the prospect of riches, becomes infected by Quixote’s ideals and works seriously to be a fair and just governor, lambasting the superficiality of ladder-climbing, ladder-falling bureaucrats who do nothing and give nothing to the world around them. Quixote’s make-believe puts into sharp relief the make-believe of “respectable” society—him making himself out to be knight is no more delusional than nobles and kings making themselves rulers with arbitrary powers.
Cervantes’s novel criticised the books in his own world, whilst Kozintsev’s film criticises the world outside of Quixote’s books. The film ends bittersweetly and gently, on a note completely different from the novel. In the novel, Quixote, returning to his senses, fierily denounces his ideals and all the written works that so moved him, then dies of sickness in bed, thereby quashing the possibility of other authors writing spurious adventures and profiting off his character. (The first part of Don Quixote spawned an unauthorized sequel written by an “Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda”, whom Cervantes had choice words for in the actual sequel.)
The film ends with Quixote humbly imploring his friends to keep him in their memory as their ever-faithful and honest friend, Alonso Quixano the Good, if not the knight Don Quixote. His physician and old friend, Sanson Carrasco (Georgy Vitsin), rues over Quixote’s deteriorating health, crying that, “I brought home Señor Quixano not so he could die, but so he could live like everyone else!”
“…And that’s what I don’t know how to do.”
Kozintsev’s Don Quixote is not a faithful adaptation of Cervantes’s semibiographical critique of his cultural contemporaries. But it is an entertaining and stirring work that deserves to be seen widely.