By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated April 08, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

The very qualities that make literary sagas so irresistible to moviemakers — the sweep, the detail, the teeming casts — are the same qualities that make literary sagas such iffy screen projects. In the process of creating a movie that services the spirit of the book while inevitably taking liberties with complexity and subtlety, one path may lead to a Gone With the Wind; the other may ignite into a Bonfire of the Vanities.

It’s easy to understand why the esteemed Danish director Bille August was hot to make The House of the Spirits, adapting it himself from Chilean novelist Isabel Allende’s exhilarating 1985 novel about four generations of one South American family and the historical and political changes they reflect. The story (inspired in large part by her own history — she’s the niece of the late Chilean president Salvador Allende, who was assassinated in 1973) is rich with passion and conflicts, power struggles and suspense, great characters, and the kind of vivid landscapes that would naturally appeal to the director of the 1988 Academy Award-winning Pelle the Conqueror. The story is also, however, rich with ghosts, spirits, premonitions, objects that levitate — a steady, floaty procession of the kind of supernatural phenomena that seem to thrive in Latin America. That’s where the book soars — and where August’s earnest International Motion Picture Adaptation remains all too tethered to earth, weighted down by a surfeit of good intentions.

What’s oddest about this well-meaning devotion to high art are the unexpected performances those exertions produce. The cast is about as classy as a prestige movie can get: Jeremy Irons as Esteban Trueba, the powerful patriarch; Glenn Close as his spinster sister, Ferula; Meryl Streep as Esteban’s wife, Clara, gifted with psychic powers; Vanessa Redgrave as Clara’s mother, Nivea; Winona Ryder as Clara’s daughter, Blanca; Antonio Banderas as Blanca’s lover, the revolutionary Pedro. Yet strange things happen when these headliners get together: Irons, who ages 50 years in the course of the movie, becomes more brittle and stylized with each application of artificial wrinkles until, by the end, he leans on his cane and mumbles like a cartoon British officer of the Raj; Streep, who also ages, evokes memories of all the previous uncommon, radiant women she has played in such showcases as The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Sophie’s Choice; Ryder, seriously miscast and working out of her coltish depth, handles the crucial role of the rebellious daughter (who at one point is tortured for her involvement with Pedro) as if she were still in Heathers; and Banderas never brings as much fire to Pedro as his compelling face would promise.

It is, in the end, Glenn Close who glows, nearly incandescent, in The House of the Spirits. Hair pulled back severely, dusty virgin body bound and hidden in dull black spinsterwear, her Ferula is the only one who seems truly at home with the dark magic of the spiritual world. In her inspired, astonishing performance, Close provides a tantalizing hint of the power of the book — and an appreciation of how rare and fortunate it is when art is truly touched by spirit. C