'Don Quixote': elegant homage

Chivalry is not dead. In the medieval world it had a dark side, arising as it did from feudalism. But at its best it outlined a belief in higher purpose, moral and physical courage, courtesy, and generosity toward the less fortunate.

If the ideals seem a little at odds with today's materialistic culture, we need only be reminded how Cervantes's wonderful novel, "Don Quixote," addressed that very issue in the 17th century. TNT's elegant homage (Sunday, April 9, 8-10 p.m., repeated throughout the month), starring John Lithgow and Bob Hoskins, strives for the gentle irony of the original, and reminds us why the story has lived on so long.

"Although he is a madman and completely ridiculous, he aspires to making the world a better place," said Mr. Lithgow in a recent telephone interview. "His 'madness' takes the form of lofty ideals - he brings heroism, civility, and idealism back to our lives."

The film shows us the middle-aged Spaniard, Alonso Quixada (Lithgow), a gentleman of La Mancha, who has read so many books about chivalric deeds, he has became addled by them. So he puts on his family's ancient, rusted armor, dubs himself Don Quixote de La Mancha, and renames the nag in his stable Rocinante. On this trusty steed, and accompanied by his practical, if foolish, servant, Sancho Panza (Bob Hoskins), Quixote sets forth to fight giants (windmills), battle whole armies (flocks of sheep with their shepherds), defend the defenseless (a convict gang), and glorify the reputation of his lady love - Dulcinea del Toboso (a farm girl named Aldonza).

When at last he recovers his senses, one has to wonder if he wasn't better off without them.

"When I first read the script, it had a beautiful speech by [writer] John Mortimer, and I asked him to make it twice as long. In it Don Quixote confronts [a priest and a company of aristocrats] who are taunting him. He says, 'Are you so contented with your lives? Is eating and sleeping enough for you? Don't you long for a life of adventure, for brave deeds, lasting reputation, the battle for truth and justice?' What we intended was to catch everybody by surprise - this silly madman can chastise the lazy privileged and get them right where they live...."

Lithgow says that another dimension of the story is just the family concern for an older gentleman. He wanders off, and his niece wants to bring him home and take care of him. "One of the things I love about the story is how it mixes sadness and hilarity, because it is very funny," he says. That human element gives the story depth and complexity, but it is the gentle ironic tone that may be most appealing today.

"We live in such ironic times," says Lithgow. "It's the era of ... relentless political satire. It's hard for anyone to take a noble stance on anything - they would be constantly ridiculed for it. [Don Quixote] is old and mad, but doesn't think of himself as either. He thinks of himself as youthful and vigorous and sensible. And he really is very brave....

"He is utterly deluded about himself but he emerges as heroic for that illusion. He goes crashing forward and the beautiful thing is he always has Sancho Panza there saying, 'What in the world are you doing this time?' "

Lithgow says he and Hoskins are serious actors who do comedy, and they made every effort to play Sancho and the Don with all the notes of the scale - from the ridiculous to the dramatic - in order to be authentic and real.

"That is Cervantes - to have in a single moment the comic and the [severe] impact," he says.

Also of note this month is She Said Cinema on the Sundance Channel. Films by women you will never see in your local cineplex are showcased. One poignant drama by director Lisanne Skyler is "Getting to Know You," based on a story by Joyce Carol Oates. The world premire will screen April 7, 11, 16, and 22 (check local listings). The film stars young Heather Matarazzo ("Now and Again," "Welcome to the Dollhouse") as a teenager on her way to a group home after her mother's hospitalization.

She and her brother have several hours to wait before their bus trip, and she meets a brilliant young man who makes up stories about people's lives based on fragments of overheard conversation. Together they unravel the mysteries of each others' lives. And genuine affection is the natural outcome of such touching confidence.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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