Three fresh college graduates follow the trail of unhinged dreamers in Reconquest of the Useless, hoping to commune with the spirit of Werner Herzog and the opera-lover he made famous as they seek out Fitzcarraldo‘s shooting locations in the Peruvian Amazon. They find more tangible connections to the 34-year-old production than one would expect, but still their effort adds little to its legacy, resulting in a film that is less an essay on audacious artistry than a high-aspiration travel diary. Serious devotees of Herzog or Les Blank, whose Burden of Dreams observed the director’s on-set trials, may find it worth their time, but receipts are unlikely to pay for the months-long agenda-driven vacation documented here.
Director Sam Pressman, son of producer Edward R. Pressman, claims a personal point of entry here, having shot the making-of doc for Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Before leaving for Peru, the three met with Herzog, who gave them a notebook with some production information, but warns that (cue Pressman’s not-very-good imitation of the auteur’s distinctive voice, which we’ll hear several times), “You will find — nothing.”
A long road trip whose payoff doesn’t match its ambitions.
His prediction is wrong. The fellas fortuitously cross paths with Cesar Vivanco, “Herzog’s right-hand man,” who introduced him to the true story of Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald while assisting with production of Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Later they will connect with the film’s producer Walter Saxer, who now owns an Iquitos hotel named for the film, and one of its stars, who owns a nearby bar. (After seeing, courtesy of Blank’s documentary, how much labor Saxer put into Fitzcarraldo, it’s sad to learn he doesn’t think they made a very good film.)
But for all these connections (not to mention the silly quasi-performance art stunts that leave them looking like self-involved “ugly Americans”), the three friends never come close to the level of inspired madness that caused a rubber baron to haul a steamship over a mountain, that inspired a filmmaker to do the same while putting his fate in Klaus Kinski’s hands, that captivated the considerably saner Les Blank, who followed Herzog into the jungle. The movie’s most affecting elements are ones that might have occurred during any long-form, no-safety-net walkabout, like the way they bond with Peruvian passengers and crew on the doomed boat they take up the Amazon. It takes two long voyages for the Americans to find a real connection with these locals. How much deeper would this encounter have been if they hadn’t been distracted by trying to get a bit of their idol’s legend to rub off on them?
Production company: Edward R. Pressman Film
Director: Sam Pressman
Producers: Edward R. Pressman
Directors of Photography: Sam Pressman, Harley Adams, Luke Wigren
Editor: Charalambis Haralambidis
Venue: International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, Havana