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El coronel no tiene quien le escriba - Arturo Ripstein

The exotic novels of Gabriel Garcia Márquez should be ideal cinematic fodder. But apart from the occasional attempt - for example, Francesco Rosi's lacklustre Rupert Everett vehicle, Chronicle Of A Death Foretold (1987), co-scripted by Márquez himself - they've so far resisted adaptation. But Mexico's Arturo Ripstein - whose artistic vision, like that of Márquez, is trained on the miraculous of the everyday - is certainly equipped to try. Perhaps the best-known Latin American director outside Spanish-speaking territories, Ripstein is practically the only Mexican film-maker with a career continuum. "For me," he said in a recent interview, "making films is everything. I don't know how to do anything else and I don't care for doing anything else. To me, it's the same as breathing, eating, or making love."

The eponymous colonel (powerfully played by white-suited, white-haired Mexican film veteran Fernando Luján) certainly shares some of Ripstein's drive - he's a poverty-stricken revolution veteran whose fuel tank of dignity is down to its last drops. Each Friday the colonel checks whether his state pension has arrived, a habit he has kept up - showing the same obstinacy as Ripstein in getting his films made - for 27 years. His asthmatic wife, Lola (Marisa Paredes), meanwhile, is a model of patience.

The previous year, the colonel's son, Agustin, was murdered in an argument among cockfighters over the beautiful Julia (Salma Hayek, who should up sales potential). This being Latin America, the colonel has received his son's rooster as compensation, and so he transfers all his hopes onto the bird: he'll train it and make it earn money for him. But when his long-suffering wife falls victim to a savage asthma attack, he decides he has to sell the rooster - an act which has the pueblo up in arms against him.

A relatively quiet Márquez novella, Nobody Writes To The Colonel is far removed from the magical-realist high jinks of One Hundred Years Of Solitude, probably his most famous work. The film, which transplants the action from Colombia to Mexico, was shot in Chacaltianguis, a village in Veracruz state, combining a stylised tropical atmosphere (warm, constant rain, foliage and thick, heavy skies), with an attention to the telling details - coffee, boots, roosters - which make up the colonel's world.

Ripstein has attempted Márquez once before, adapting an early story for his first feature, 1965's Tiempo De Morir (Time To Die). "Tiempo is the story of an old man told by a young man," Ripstein explains. "This time it's the same story, but told by an old man. Colonel is more similar to Tiempo than any of my other films. It's interesting to close the circle 33 years on."

Ripstein's last two features, 1996's Profundo Carmesí (Deep Crimson) and last year's El Evangelio De La Maravillas (Divine), have consolidated the director's offshore reputation while demonstrating that a Ripstein screwball comedy may still be some way off. When asked what has kept his interest in this latest project alive for 18 years, he replies: "Basically, it's hopelessness. The need to create a better world, through hope, than the one we have."

Ripstein claims to feel no responsibility towards the text he and long-term scriptwriting partner Paz Alicia Garciadiego have adapted. "One owes fidelity to the inspiration caused by the literary text," he says, "and that, in the end, is the film itself. I'm faithful to the film - the literary text is just an object to be manipulated." And yet fans of Márquez's Colonel are unlikely to be disappointed. The narrative structure remains pretty much intact, and the pay-off line - the famous last word of the story - has also been retained. "It's a story which tells itself," Garciadiego says. "It has the naturalness, the simplicity and the elegance of perfection."

The cast is inclined to agree. "Ripstein sent me the script and I went crazy," says Salma Hayek (who winningly described herself during the shoot as "the best-known actor outside Mexico, but not Mexico's best actor"). "I cried - it's very moving. I'm not saying the film is better than the book, but it's tighter, more intense."

Meanwhile, her co-star, Marisa Paredes, has the distinction of appearing in two official competition films this Cannes, the other being Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother. How did they compare? "Both directors are insatiable," she says. "They always want to make the best possible film an aren't content with half tones. Both are authentic creators." Jonathan Holland