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In 1774, in Peru, a rickety bridge that for one hundred years has spanned the gorge leading to the chapel of San Luis Rey collapses, sending five people plunging to their death. Deeply affected by the catastrophe, Brother Juniper, the pastor of the chapel, journeys to Lima in quest of why these five people were chosen to die. There Juniper visits Uncle Pio, a theatrical entrepeneur who is widely regarded as the pulse of his people. When Juniper questions Pio about the beloved Peruvian actress Michaela Villegas, Pio recalls first seeing her perform in the streets of Lima: Micheala is attracted to the adventurous Manuel, but Esteban, Manuel's morose twin brother, despises her. One day, Manuel tells Michaela that he is sailing to Spain and asks her to wait for him. After Manuel departs, Pio becomes Michaela's mentor, schooling her in acting and proper comportment. Under Pio's guidance, Michaela develops into the leading actress of the Comedia Theater. The Viceroy, bored and resentful over being exiled from Spain to the colony of Peru, becomes intrigued by Michaela and invites her to the palace. On the night that Michaela is to meet the Viceroy, Manuel returns, and she foresakes her audience with the nobleman to spend the night with him. Jealous over the Viceroy's interest in Michaela, Manuel forbids her to go to the palace and warns her that the aristocracy will make her an object of ridicule. Manuel's return creates tension between the brothers, and upon returning home one night, Manuel finds a stack of unmailed letters Michaela had written to him and a note from Esteban, apologizing for never having mailed them. Full of remorse, Esteban tries to hang himself but Manuel cuts him down and nurses him back to health. When Esteban is well, Manuel abruptly leaves for an around-the-world voyage. Soon after, the Viceroy invites Michaela to the palace again and she accepts. The Marquesa, determined to win the Viceroy for her daughter, embarks upon a scheme to destroy Michaela. When the Viceroy's guests insult Michaela by treating her as a common entertainer, the Marquesa pretends to be her friend, thus winning her confidence. Returning to the present, Pio finishes his part of the story and Juniper visits the Abbess to ask her about the Marquesa. The Abbess tells Juniper that to escape her mother's plans for her marriage, the Marquesa's daughter ran away to Spain and married a young nobleman. Lonely after her daughter's departure, the Marquesa visits the Abbess to ask for a companion. The Abbess obliges by giving her Pepita, an innocent, gentle orphan. Embittered and forlorn, the Marquesa mistreats little Pepita. When the frustrated Marquesa interrogates Pio about Michaela's relationship with the Viceroy, Pio warns her against slander. At Michaela's villa, meanwhile, the Viceroy confides to Michaela that he may be in love with her because she has awakened his interest in the Peruvian people. Later, Esteban, who is working as a scribe, warns Michaela that the Marquesa and the other aristocrats are plotting against her and produces a letter as proof. Feeling betrayed, Michaela goes to Pio for advice, and he composes an insulting song for her to sing at a gathering at the palace that afternoon. Michaela's lyrics about an old crow plotting to overthrow the court scandalizes all those present. Furious, the Viceroy orders Michaela to apologize to the Marquesa and instructs her to wear a black dress and sandals, the uniform of penitence. Although she resents the Viceroy's public humiliation of her, Michaela follows his command and visits the Marquesa. Ashamed, the Marquesa thanks Michaela for showing her the error of her ways and apologizes. That night, Manuel, now a sea captain, returns and asks Michaela to go away with him. In response, Michaela philosophizes about the impossibility of ever understanding oneself or others, and points to the transformation of the Marquesa and Esteban as proof. As Michaela and Manuel embrace, the Viceroy enters and insists that Manuel accompany him to the palace. There, after a confrontation with Manuel, the Viceroy realizes that his rival is dangerous and orders his arrest. Soon after, the Viceroy receives an order to return to Spain and asks Michaela to join him as his wife. Infuriated by Manuel's arrest, Michaela rejects his proposal. As the Viceroy plans his last trip with Michaela, a journey to a mountain village to dedicate a hospital, Michaela tells Pio of Manuel's danger and asks his help in freeing Manuel from jail. On the day of Michaela and the Viceroy's departure to San Luis Rey, Pio and his friends break Manuel out of jail. Upon learning of the escape, the Viceroy questions Pio, who recommends that he pardon Manuel or risk turning him into a martyr. After the Viceroy signs the pardon, Pio delivers it to Manuel, who is hiding in the rocks abutting the bridge of San Luis Rey. Together, Manuel and Pio watch as the Viceroy and his party arrive for their trek across the bridge. They are joined by the Marquesa, who has come to prey at the chapel with Esteban and Pepita. The Viceroy crosses to the other side, followed by Pepita, Esteban, the Marquesa and the Viceroy's aide. As the Viceroy steps onto the yard in front of the chapel, an Indian passes him and crosses onto the bridge. On the other side, meanwhile, Michaela is about to traverse the bridge when Manuel emerges from behind the rocks and kisses her. As she steps on the bridge, the span collapses, sending the Marquesa, the Indian, the Viceroy's aide, Pepita and Esteban to their deaths. Manuel and Pio watch in horror, pulling Michaela to safety at the last moment.