The House of the Spirits (film)

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The House of the Spirits
The House of Spirits Poster.jpg
Promotional poster (US)
Directed byBille August
Produced byBernd Eichinger
Written byBille August
Based onThe House of the Spirits
by Isabel Allende
Music byHans Zimmer
CinematographyJörgen Persson
Edited byJanus Billeskov Jansen
Distributed byMiramax Films
Release date
October 17, 1993 (Germany)
April 1, 1994 (US)
Running time
140 minutes
Budget$40 million[1]
Box office$6,265,311 (US)[1] $55 million (Europe)[2]

The House of the Spirits (Original title Das Geisterhaus) is a 1993 German-Danish-Portuguese period drama film directed by Bille August and starring Jeremy Irons, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Winona Ryder, Antonio Banderas and Vanessa Redgrave. The supporting cast includes María Conchita Alonso, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Jan Niklas. Based on the 1982 novel La Casa de los Espíritus by Isabel Allende, the film is about the life of a young lady named Clara during the military dictatorship in Chile, and her recollection of her family history, mainly the rise of her husband, Esteban Trueba.

While the film won some minor awards, it was widely viewed as a critical failure.



A young woman, Blanca Trueba (Winona Ryder), arrives at a house with an old man and the young woman starts remembering her life, specifically through the eyes of her mother, who kept journals throughout her life to help herself understand the connections between people and things.

Clara and Esteban

Blanca's mother, Clara del Valle (Meryl Streep) was a child with psychic powers in 1926 when Esteban Trueba (Jeremy Irons) came to propose to Clara's older sister, Rosa del Valle. Even though she was very young—-maybe about 6 years old—-Clara knew she was in love with this man. Esteban left his fiancée with her family to earn money for their wedding. One day, Clara had a vision and told her sister Rosa that there would be an accidental death in the family. The next day, Rosa died in her sleep after drinking poison intended for her father, Senator Severo. Clara blamed herself for her sister's death, and after accidentally witnessing Rosa's autopsy, she decided never to speak again.

Esteban was heartbroken. At home, his sister, Férula (Glenn Close) lived and took care of their sick mother. Esteban used the money he earned from mining and bought a hacienda, Tres Marías. He finds many natives living on his land and tells them to work for him for food and shelter. For the next twenty years, Esteban makes Tres Marías an example of a successful Hacienda. One day he rapes a peasant girl, Pancha García (Sarita Choudhury), eventually resulting in the birth of a boy. Esteban spends some nights with Tránsito, a local prostitute (María Conchita Alonso), to whom he lends money so she can start a new career in the capital.

Twenty years later, Esteban receives a letter that his mother has died. At her funeral, Esteban notices that Clara, now all grown up but still not speaking, is in attendance with her parents, who are taking care of her. Esteban decides to ask for Clara's hand, despite Férula's protests that Clara is too emotionally unstable and will not take care of him properly. When he shows up at the Del Valle family's house, Clara asks him right away if he has come to ask her to marry him, thus speaking again for the first time in twenty years, much to her family's delight. From there, wedding plans move forward very quickly.

Férula meets Clara at a restaurant to talk about her own future, and Clara, sensing Férula's worries, promises that she can live with her and Esteban in Tres Marías after the wedding, and that the two of them will be like sisters. Having never been treated with such warmth and love before, Ferula is overwhelmed by Clara's pure kindness, instantly developing an obsession with her—-not a dangerous kind, but more like a situation where Férula feels a fierce need to protect her.

Clara eventually gives birth to a girl as she predicted, and names her Blanca. One day, the girl whom Esteban raped, Pancha García, appears at the family house with Esteban's illegitimate teenage son, Esteban García, and asks for money. Esteban Trueba gives them some money and harshly orders them never to come back, threatening to have his dogs attack them both if they return. His grown son does, however, sneak into the house one day while Clara and Esteban are gone. He approaches young Blanca while she is playing alone, holds her in his lap, and gently caresses her body. He quickly runs out after a few minutes, but this foreshadows dangerous events to come in the future for Blanca.

Meanwhile, Clara holds classes for the peasant children and Blanca. Pedro Tercero, the young son of Esteban's foreman Segundo at Tres Marias, befriends Blanca, and the two become playmates. Esteban Trueba does not like his daughter playing with a peasant boy and sends Blanca to a boarding school.

Blanca and Pedro Tercero

After graduating from school, Blanca returns home to Tres Marías and meets with Pedro Tercero (Antonio Banderas) by the river every night. Ferula continues to live with the family and is very close with Clara and Blanca, much to Esteban's annoyance, but he pretty much goes along with it until one night, when an earthquake occurs during one of his political meetings. He worries about Clara and Blanca, goes home to Tres Marías, and finds that Férula has climbed into bed with Clara. He is so angry that he throws Férula out of the house, telling her he will kill her if she ever makes contact with his family again. With tears in her eyes, Férula does leave, but not without cursing Esteban and assuring him that he will be lonely and miserable for the rest of his days. Clara is deeply disappointed that Esteban would kick his sister out of their family home, but Esteban insists that he loves Clara and won't let anyone come between them.

One day, Esteban brings the French Count Jean de Satigny (Jan Niklas) to his home, intending to arrange a marriage between him and Blanca. Clara senses that the French "nobleman" is a fraud while reading cards, but Esteban dismisses her folly. While Satigny is still visiting, Esteban catches Pedro preaching revolutionary ideas that are critical of wealthy landowners like Esteban to the peasant workers. Esteban orders the workers to return to work and punishes Pedro with a fierce whipping and banishes him from Tres Marías. That night at dinner, Férula suddenly appears in the house, kisses Clara on the forehead before calmly walking out. Clara tells the rest of the family that Férula has died. Clara and Esteban drive into town to Férula's modest house, where they find her dead on the bed. Clara asks for a moment alone with Ferula to tell her how much she and Blanca miss her, and how proud she would be of Blanca.

Pedro returns to Tres Marías to talk to the peasants about their rights and nearly gets shot by Esteban. That night, Count Jean de Satigny, who is visiting again, watches Blanca and Pedro meeting secretly at the river. He reveals Blanca's lover to her father, who immediately drags Blanca back to the house. When Clara tries to persuade him not to be violent, Esteban hits his wife, and she falls. Esteban immediately expresses his regret, but Clara tells him in shock and agony that she will never speak to him again. Clara moves with Blanca to her parents' home in the capital.

Esteban offers a large reward for anyone who can reveal Pedro's whereabouts to him. He does get the information he wants from none other than his illegitimate son, whom he does not recognize. Esteban attempts to shoot Pedro, but he gets away, and when his illegitimate son asks for his reward, Esteban refuses.

Esteban is furious when he learns that Blanca is pregnant with Pedro's child. He goes to her house and tells her he is arranging a marriage for her to cover up the scandal, but she flatly refuses, at which point Esteban falsely tells her that he already murdered Pedro. Blanca is distraught, and Clara makes Esteban leave. Later, she reassures Blanca that Pedro is indeed alive—-she knows because she dreamed it—-and they won't be reunited for a while because he needs time to flee to a safe place. Blanca asks Clara why she ever married her father, to which she says that she loved him for his strength and courage. Then Clara admits that she still loves him, and despite all he has done, she believes that none of it comes from malice.

After some time, Esteban goes to Clara, apologizes for his actions, and asks if he can live with them for a while. She maintains her vow to never speak to him again, but she does allow him to meet their granddaughter Alba, who is about seven years old now, and be a part of their lives again.


Esteban is busy with his political career as a senator, but as an old man, he is lonely and finds comfort in the arms of Tránsito, who now runs a high-class prostitution establishment.

During the national election, Esteban believes his Conservative Party will win as usual, but the People's Front ends up winning control of the government. Blanca goes out on the street to celebrate and to meet Pedro, now a leading figure in the People's Front. Clara stays home with Alba to decorate the house for Christmas. She appears to have a heart attack, but before she passes away, she gently explains to her granddaughter that she has always been in touch with spirits on the other side, and when she dies, she will be in contact with Alba, as well as the rest of the family. Right before her spirit passes, Clara instructs the little girl to give the diaries she has kept all her life to her mother Blanca, so that "she may understand better how events are related.” Clara's death hits everyone hard, signaling major changes for the whole family.

Meanwhile, a conspiracy between some Conservative Party members and the military leads to a coup d'état, and the military takes control of the country. At first, Esteban believes it is good for the country and that the military will hand power back to the Conservative Party, but he soon learns that the military have other plans. Under the control of the military, people associated with the People's Party are captured and even killed. The police ultimately come and arrest Blanca for being with Pedro Tercero. The police grant her a few minutes to say goodbye to her father, at which point Blanca reveals to Esteban that Pedro has been hiding in their house's cellar. She tells Esteban that Pedro is the love of her life, just as Clara was his. She reminds Esteban that he has many influential friends, and while she is gone, she begs him to figure out a plan to get Pedro out of the country, so the three of them can be a family.

In the coming days, Blanca is tortured and sexually abused by her half-brother, Esteban García, who had joined the military with his father's help. This is his way of exacting revenge on their father, who loved and protected Blanca throughout her life, but openly rejected his illegitimate son. At this point, it is clear that Esteban's innocent daughter has been left to pay the price for the foolish, selfish choices he made so long ago.

Meanwhile, Esteban honors his daughter's wishes and helps Pedro Tercero find exile in Canada. Esteban then turns to Tránsito, now an influential Madam with many connections to high-level military figures, to help free Blanca. One morning, a beaten and raped Blanca finally arrives back at her home, and Esteban is very grateful to see her. He tells her that Pedro is waiting for her and Alba in Canada. He realizes now how wrong he has been, and how deeply his actions have affected his family. Now this is the last truly valuable thing he is giving her in return to help make up for it.


Blanca and Esteban return to Tres Marías with Alba. Esteban is finally visited by Clara's spirit, who has come to help the old man on to the next world. Blanca sits outside and ponders her life, looking forward to a future with Pedro and their daughter. She reflects on how she does not want to live her life with anger or hatred—-instead, she wishes to move forward and be happy.



Principal photography took place in Denmark, but some scenes were filmed in Lisbon and Alentejo, Portugal.


The music was composed by award winner Hans Zimmer. Additionally, two songs appear in the film: "La Paloma", a Spanish–Cuban–Mexican tune sung by popular Chilean singer Rosita Serrano; and "La Cumparsita", a classic Uruguayan tango tune performed by German bandleader Adalbert Lutter and his orchestra.


The film has a "rotten" 30% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 37 reviews with the consensus: "An enviable collection of sterling actors are all woefully miscast in The House of the Spirits, a plodding saga of magical realism that lacks much magic or realism."[3] Two oft-cited reasons for the poor critical reception were its diffusely episodic structure[4] and a cast of mostly Anglo American actors in Latin American roles.[5]

The film grossed $6 million in the United States and more than $55 million in Europe.[2]

Angle Errigo of the Empire Online gave The House of the Spirits 2 out of 5 and stated that: "If this had been a Latin American production, one might have been more generous towards the fumblings of a fairly fetching saga; given the talents involved, the film's hesitations in style and consistent failure to really move must be counted as a major disappointment."[6]

Awards and nominations[edit]

The film won multiple awards: Bavarian Film Awards, German Film Awards, the Golden Screen (Germany), Havana Film Festival, and Robert Festival (Denmark), the German Phono Academy, and the Guild of German Art House Cinemas.

  • 1994 Bavarian Film Award for Best Costume Design (Barbara Baum) Won
  • 1994 Bavarian Film Award for Best Production (Bernd Eichinger) Won
  • 1994 German Film Award in Gold for Outstanding Individual Achievement: Over All Concept (Bernd Eichinger) Won
  • 1994 German Phono Academy Echo Award for Film Music of the Year (Hans Zimmer) Won
  • 1994 Guild of German Art House Cinemas Award (Gold) for German Film (Bille August) Won
  • 1994 Havana Film Festival Coral Award for Best Work of a Non-Latin American Director on a Latin America Subject (Bille August) Won
  • 1994 Robert Award for Best Editing (Janus Billeskov Jansen) Won
  • 1994 Robert Award for Best Film (Bille August) Won
  • 1994 Robert Award for Best Screenplay (Bille August) Won
  • 1994 Robert Award for Best Sound (Niels Arild) Won

Year-end worst-of lists[edit]


  1. ^ a b "The House of the Spirits (1994)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 10 March 2021.
  2. ^ a b Fox, David J. (4 April 1994). "'House of Spirits' Fails to Levitate : Movies: The star-studded film does poorly in its U.S. opening, despite heavy publicity and strong European sales". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 10 March 2021.
  3. ^ "The House of the Spirits". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved 10 March 2021.
  4. ^ Ebert, Roger (1 April 1994). "The House of the Spirits". Chicago Sun-Times. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  5. ^ Levy, Emanuel. (30 December 2005) "House of the Spirits: Misfire–Bille August Directs All-Star (Miscast)," Retrieved 10 March 2021.
  6. ^ Angle Errigo (1 January 2000). "The House of the Spirits Review". Empire Online. Retrieved 10 March 2021.
  7. ^ Lovell, Glenn (25 December 1994). "The Past Picture Show the Good, the Bad and the Ugly -- a Year Worth's of Movie Memories". San Jose Mercury News (Morning Final ed.). p. 3.
  8. ^ Mills, Michael (30 December 1994). "It's a Fact: 'Pulp Fiction' Year's Best". The Palm Beach Post (Final ed.). p. 7.
  9. ^ Travers, Peter (29 December 1994). "The Best and Worst Movies of 1994". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 10 March 2021.
  10. ^ Mayo, Mike (30 December 1994). "The Hits and Misses at the Movies in '94". The Roanoke Times (Metro ed.). p. 1.
  11. ^ Elliott, David (25 December 1994). "On the big screen, color it a satisfying time". The San Diego Union-Tribune (1, 2 ed.). p. E8.

External links[edit]