Running Time: 111 minutes
Rated: M 15+
Rolf de Heer is a distinctive, idiosyncratic filmmaker and one of Australia's finest. Born in Holland, like fellow Australian auteur Paul Cox, de Heer's films (which include Bad Boy Bubby, Dance Me To My Song, The Tracker), defy easy categorising. Often confronting, they come from the heart, and are deeply embedded in Australian landscape and culture, even dark dramas such as his recent, highly successful Alexandra's Project.
The Old Man Who Read Love Stories differs from these films in both theme and treatment. Tender and more romantic in tone, it is about an old man, Antonio Bolivar (Richard Dreyfuss) who joins a hunt in the Amazon jungle for a marauding jaguar, and discovers not Conrad's 'heart of darkness' (as in Apocalypse Now), but an affinity and respect for life, both animal and human.
Dreyfuss plays Antonio Bolivar with great sensitivity. When we first encounter Bolivar he is a man of sixty who after forty years in the Ecuadorian rain forest, now lives on the outskirts of El Idilio, a small village on the bank of the Amazon, which is ruled like a fiefdom by its overbearing mayor, Luis Agalla (Timothy Spall).
Bolivar's sole friend is Rubicondo (Hugo Weaving), a travelling dentist with mediocre skills but a waggish charm. When Rubicondo learns that his friend, despite fading eyesight, wants to start reading again, he borrows love stories for the old man to read from his mistress Josefina (Cathy Tyson), who is also Agalla's long-suffering housekeeper.
Alone in his shack, we learn much about Bolivar from the painstaking, dogged way he dissects and ponders the exact meaning of each word that he reads aloud from Josefina's romances. We also learn much about this patient, affable man - his short marriage to his wife, and his long years living with a tribe of Indians - through flashbacks that seamlessly and cleverly dissolve the boundary between the present and past.
Up to this point, the pace of The Old Man Who Read Love Stories is leisurely, almost Proustian. But when Bolivar and Rubicondo are shanghaied by the ignorant Agalla into the hunt for a female jaguar who is stalking men in retaliation for the slaying of her cubs by an illegal hunter, the story explodes with both action and metaphysical meaning.
The Old Man Who Read Love Stories was filmed in French Guyana in 1999, and due to distribution difficulties is only now being released. Both a love story and cautionary tale about the need to conquer our own fears and appetites, this beautiful and unusual film is well worth the wait.
Jan Epstein is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.