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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Brando's Greatness Graces Comedy of Love and Delusion

Movie fans who remember Marlon Brando's towering peformances in the past may be surprised -- pleasantly or otherwise -- by his work in "Don Juan DeMarco," the 1995 comedy now available on video in Moscow.

Brando is the Big Scary Monster of American cinema. His talent is so vast and his screen presence so powerful that over the years he has tended to disrupt almost every movie he appeared in, drawing them off-center toward the troubled, troubling figure he embodied, no matter what the role. Only when he was hedged in with a greatness that matched his own -- a script by Tennessee Williams, say, or a vision like Bernardo Bertolucci's, or a strong supporting cast -- could Brando's talent be channeled to serve the story.

Those conditions could produce masterpieces unsurpassed by any other figure in film: "A Streetcar Named Desire," "On the Waterfront," "The Wild Ones," "The Godfather," and his role in Bertolucci's "Last Tango In Paris," a performance so disturbing and true that some felt it took screen acting to its very limits: beyond this, they held, there is only v?rit?, or else mere mannerism.

But like many great artists, Brando despised his own talent, and the public image that went with it. Since "Tango" in 1972, his infrequent screen appearances have been little more than casual sketches, marked by boredom and the contempt he has often voiced for the medium of his mastery. (Two notable exceptions to this are his hilarious turn as the pig-ignorant American Nazi George Lincoln Rockwell in TV's "Roots" miniseries, and his role as a crusading lawyer in the anti-apartheid film, "A Dry White Season.") His off-screen life, meanwhile, exploded into a drama of literally tragic dimensions, with the suicide of one child and the imprisonment of another for murder. With his tabloid tragedies -- and immense weight gain -- he seemed now to embody that media spectacle so beloved by Americans: a great figure going down in flames.

It is, therefore, something of a surprise to see the kind of subtlety, humility, and genuine grace that Brando brings to the slight but appealing "DeMarco." Here he plays an aging psychiatrist on the verge of retirement called in to help a young man (Johnny Depp) who imagines he is Don Juan, the legendary lover immortalized by Byron, Pushkin, and Mozart, among others. Unwittingly, the psychiatrist finds himself drawn into the young man's delusions -- and finds they are invigorating his own life, sparking new passion with his wife (Faye Dunaway) and a new sense of the color and charm of existence.

The performance is not a total departure, of course; it was presaged by 1990's "The Freshman." There too Brando banked his fire and willingly gave place to a rising young actor in a light comedy -- Matthew Broderick, in this case. But his "Freshman" role was merely a caricature, a devastating send-up of his famous Don Corleone in "The Godfather." In "Don Juan DeMarco," he uses his new-found humility and grace to create a more realistic, moving character.

Johnny Depp continues his idiosyncratic career path, bringing his penchant for strangely beguiling oddity to the deluded Johnny DeMarco of Queens. His character here functions much like the one he played to such good effect in "Benny and Joon": the wise innocent whose "madness" teaches lessons to the sane. And as in "Benny," where Depp paid open homage to screen legend Buster Keaton, here another mythic figure from movie history is often playfully evoked: Errol Flynn.

The movie is built around DeMarco's fantasies, his "memories" of the marvelous seductions he has achieved with a series of beautiful lovers. These fantasies are shot in rich, opulent color, and are deliberately over-the-top in terms of arch-romantic setting and hilariously ardent dialogue. Yet for all their silliness and exaggeration, they are also imbued with the young man's genuine longing for love and his passion for beauty in all its forms: in the human body, in elegant words, in grand gestures of sacrifice and tenderness. Like Byron's poem, the scenes often convey the simultaneous ludicrousness and spirituality of romantic love, how it scandalizes reason while nourishing the soul.

Brando captures this as well in his awkward attempts to rekindle the flame with his wife, Marilyn. The actor is a huge, hulking ruin of the physical beauty that was once his trademark -- he's now fat, balding, wheezing -- but he is not afraid to put this in the service of the story. His attempts at connection are all the more moving coming from someone who now seems far beyond our "normal" idea of a lover.

"Don Juan DeMarco" is, to be sure, a rather slight coda to such a towering career. But so what? After all the Sturm und Drang, why not end with a quiet grace note?

"Don Juan DeMarco" is available at Video Express, located in the Post International store at M. Putinkovsky Pereulok 1/2. Tel. 209-9168.