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The Fifth Monkey
(1990)
 

Director: Eric Rochat     
Cast:
Ben Kingsley, Mika Lins, Vera Fischer, Silvia De Carvallho


A pleasant movie, though frustrating at times because the viewer is frequently reminded of the unexploited potential. Though it's amazing that the movie is as good as it is, considering it was produced by Menahem Golan and his short-lived 21 Century Films company.

Deep in the Brazilian rain forest (shot on the actual location), Cunda (Kingsley) is intent on making enough money so he can marry a widow in his village. However, his trade - capturing snakes for scientists - pays very little money, and he's in direct competition with other suitors.

One day, Cunda is bitten by a snake, and he crawls to the river to recover. While going through the agonizing recovery, he has an hallucination of four chimpanzees sitting in the river. Recovered, he returns home and finds the four chimpanzees waiting for him, and his efforts to shoo them away fail. Knowing that chimpanzees are not native to Brazil, he decides that they are a kind of supernatural gift for him. Believing this, he decides to take them to "the city" to sell them.

The journey isn't easy from the start; he discovers that he can't tie them on a rope and drag them, and the only way is to coax them. They stumble into a gold-panning camp, where Cunda is forced to work in order to pay off an old debt. When one of the apes is taken as payment, Cunda must figure how to retrieve the monkey and escape. Later, he, the apes and the adults of a village are kidnapped by mercenaries. Cunda and the apes escape, along with a village woman who refuses to leave his side. Arriving at a small town, a confusing sequence results in one of the monkeys disappearing, and Cunda becoming the servant of the local rich woman who has taken it upon herself to take care of the apes. Cunda now has to solve these two problems, and deal with the fact of the village woman's attraction to him plus his growing fondness of the apes.

Wisely, Rochat keeps a slow, deliberate pace for this material, and uses the beautiful Brazilian landscape for a number of stunning sequences. The excellent flute instrumental score helps to create that feeling of cinematic magic that not many films manage to achieve. But most of this good material is confined to the first third of the movie; after the thirty-minute mark the magic somehow evaporates. Consequently, every new encounter Cunda has feels like it is missing commercials or a subtitle reading "Act (x)". This would not matter if Cunda's later adventures had some originality to them, but it's quite obvious how each adventure will end. And that wouldn't matter much if these sequences were directed exceptionally or the writing put a fresh spin on the sequences, or even added some humor or interesting dialogue. As it is, the sequences are professionally made, for what they are - and no more.

I'm in no way saying that I hated this picture, or was actively bored anytime during this movie. I was glad that I saw the movie. But I couldn't help thinking throughout the movie what the movie could have been. Even Kingsley seemed dragged down by the untapped potential. At the beginning, his performance is surprising bad, but at least he puts some energy into it. Later, he stops being stiff, and seems to be used to things, but his character then seldom speaks and stops being interesting. His love scene is unintentionally hilarious, because it's quite clearly written on his face that he doesn't know how to handle it.

But coming from the producer who made The Forbidden Dance, Phantom of the Opera, and Captain America, the movie is absolutely amazing. Especially if you've seen those movies, The Fifth Monkey in comparison is even better. It's a little sad that although those three movies attracted some kind of audience and do have some public knowledge, The Fifth Monkey - despite it's flaws - got no audience and nobody has heard of it.


UPDATE: "Maurice" told me some very interesting things about the making of this movie. Here's what he had to say:

"I read your review of The Fifth Monkey and it is amazing how you captured the spirit of this movie or rather his problems. I was part of the camera crew in this production, and was also the translator for Ben Kingsley. The reason why the movie lost quality after 30 minutes was that Golan pressured the Brazilian crew to work quicker and less artistically (my own interpretation of what went on.) In short, after 20% of the movie was completed, Golan wanted to replace the director of photography and partly also Rochat, which really killed the movie. The Brazilian crew quit, Kingsley insisted that Rochat stayed, and a new contract was written which made Kingsley, Rochat and the new director of photography, all directors of the movie.

"From then on the atmosphere on the set was terrible, everybody was unsatisfied and angry, and definitely the little bit of value the movie had was gone.

"It is sometimes difficult to work in an international production. In this case, most the crew members were Brazilian, the director was French, the main actor (Ben Kingsley) English, and the production company American. Golan didn't speak Portuguese, and if I am not mistaken, neither did he speak French. (The same goes for Kingsley.) Golan wanted to know what was going on, and how the Brazilian Production team - the Barreto Family (Bruno Barreto, director of films like: Donna Flor And Her Two Husbands, Four Days In September, etc....... btw, great movies) was spending his money. There was a lot of mistrust between them, to say the least. As I was one of the very few to speak all 3 languages, I was a much searched source for information.

"Btw, if I remember right, the monkeys came from Hollywood, except for one Brazilian (poor thing made very little money), and we had a real celebrity there - "Bubbles", Michael Jackson's monkey. A very interesting figure was the stand-in for Ben; unfortunately I can not remember his name. He was for many years the stand-in for Richard Burton."


UPDATE 2: Director Eric Rochat sent me the following e-mail:

"For your information, I was actually the producer of the film as well by contract, then the titles were made in LA by Menahem Golan. At the screening of the first copy, to my great surprise, Menahem had given himself the credit of Producer. When I complained about it, he came up with the following line: "You have enough credit as it is, writer, director! You're not going to fight me over this, are you?" I was so exhausted by the whole fight during the shooting that I let it go. Now one word in favor of Menahem, he loves movies and gave a lot of people the opportunity to have a go at it."

Check for availability on Amazon (VHS)

See also: The Legend Of Alfred Packer, Mountain Man, Chino

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