Prospero's Books Stands Alone

I knew almost nothing about Prospero’s Books before watching it, and that’s the way to watch it. But if you need more, it’s beautiful, visually distinct, and full of brilliant dialogue. That’s probably because it’s an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which I also knew nothing about. Prospero’s Books isn’t for everyone, but I recommend watching the first ten minutes and seeing if you enjoy it.

Nothing about Prospero’s Books should work. Writing it out like this will make it seem incredibly up its own ass. Yet everything works in the movie. The film has multiple visual styles that are rarely or never used in other movies. The movie has long, long takes in which a camera slowly pans from one side of a scene to another, and also pans forward and back in and out of totally different locations. If this were made today, it would be caked in CGI and take away from the coordination of the whole thing. I am in awe that this movie got designed at all, and then somebody decided to fund it. These are elaborate, prop-laden, and extremely well-populated scenes, with heavy special effects, and yet each shot goes on and on. Seeing everything in tune in this 1991 film works the way it doesn’t with one actor at a time doing their scene on a green screen. (Example: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)

I couldn’t follow the plot, but that doesn’t matter. Every scene has a logic to it and I’m pretty sure they’re all connected. Through little fault of Prospero’s Books, I was also falling asleep at the midway point and I think I missed some details. I still want to read up on the plot and rewatch the movie because of how invigorating it is.

The soundtrack is epic and operatic. The opening scene implies a world ending, and the music fits.

Aesthetically, Prospero’s Books is committed to “every frame a painting”. The whole thing looks like a renaissance painting, a comparison which has been cheapened in recent years. Watch this movie and get back to me about what is and isn’t a painting. Everything looks soft and painterly. The spiritual aesthetic syncs with the soundtrack and plot, creating a full sense of place.

One of the many fascinating things about Prospero’s Books is the pervasive nudity. Human bodies are used as decorations, sometimes literal statues. They usually signify spirits, while the more human characters have clothes. Some spirits even get special makeup to emphasize their ethereality. It’s a fantastic, daring effect, and one of the many reasons I can’t believe this got made.

Prospero’s Books is a very, very rare film: one which doesn’t bring to mind others. I want to see this director’s other movies, but I also have to see this one again.