by Kevin Courrier
For Keanu Reeves, being an actor must be the equivalent of trying on new clothes. Where most young stars would satisfy themselves with the security of familiar roles that would bring them continued fame, Reeves defies those lines of definition.
Rather than turn into a bankable heartthrob after making his mark as the troubled teen in the dark drama, "The River's Edge", he played a young suitor in Stephen Frears' elegant "Dangerous Liaisons". Instead of becoming a slacker for all seasons after the success of "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure", he broadened his range by becoming a romantic lead in "Tune in Tomorrow", a surfer cop in "Point Break" and a preppie hustler in "My Own Private Idaho".
In last summer's mega-hit, "Speed", Reeves even established himself as an equal opportunity action star by sharing the heroics with Sandra Bullock (she drove, he saved). But not content to bask in the glory of his biggest success to date, he went on "to be" and "not to be" as a very credible Hamlet at the Manitoba Theatre Centre.
It's that versatility coupled with a try-it-on attitude that leads Reeves to his latest film, "A Walk in the Clouds".
"I was attracted to "A Walk in the Clouds" because I really wanted to do some romance," Reeves says. "I wanted something that concerned itself more with the heart and sensuality."
A remake of the Italian film, "Four Steps in the Clouds", the central theme of "A Walk in the Clouds" is the unrequited carnal desires of the main character. Reeves plays Paul Sutton, a young GI returning from the war in 1945. He meets the beautiful daughter (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) of a vineyard owner (Giancarlo Giannini) and agrees to pose as her husband to help her face her domineering father. When their passions for each other are ignited during the fecundity of the harvest ritual, they are forced to overcome the odds to remain together.
"Paul Sutton is a dreamer," says director Alfonso Arau. "He returns home from the war but the world has changed. But in that vineyard -- which is a timeless, magical place -- he finds the traditional values he was dreaming of."
Like his lead actor, Arau has developed an eccentric approach to his film career. After a long acting career ("The Wild Bunch", "Used Cars", "Romancing the Stone") playing bandits with the same uproarious glee that Camille Paglia reserves for cat-fights, Arau found a new calling: directing romantic films.
Arau made his directing debut with "Like Water For Chocolate". This exotic film about the struggle for sexual freedom and pleasure in the face of parental disapproval became the largest grossing foreign film in North America in 1993. This success saw him showered with directorial offers, one of which was "A Walk in the Clouds".
"The essence of the film is the confrontation between the Latin and Anglo-Saxon cultures," Arau explains. "But the resolution that comes to all of them is through love."
That universal language of love gave Arau the freedom to adapt the original film -- set in Italy -- to his native Mexico without losing touch with the essence of the story. That other universal language -- money -- was spoken by producers David and Jerry Zucker ("Airplane!", "The Naked Gun", "Ghost") who spent seven years attempting to purchase the rights to the original Italian classic.
Although Spanish actress Aitana Sanchez-Gijon is a newcomer to North American audiences, her relative inexperience is balanced by Reeves as well as veterans Giancarlo Giannini ("Swept Away", "Used People") and Anthony Quinn ("Zorba the Greek", "Lust for Life"), who plays the wise family patriarch.
"A Walk in the Clouds" owes much to the melding of Italian sensuality with the magic realist Latin American tradition -- as well as a tip of the cap to good old American pot-boiler romances. But the film also bridges the gap between what we know and don't know about each other's cultures.
"I like the hidden mysteries of the family and their traditional values," Arau elaborates. "I also want to understand their attachment to the earth."
Those qualities were also invoked in "Like Water For Chocolate". And given the way that North American audiences devoured that delectable film, the Zucker brothers must have known that Alfonso Arau and Keanu Reeves could probably make "A Walk in the Clouds" seem like a walk in the park.