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(Partial) Movie Review

Last night, after having devoured Bonnie Wade's book about Japanese music in one sitting, I decided to sit myself down and watch a movie. I had checked out Farinelli from the Reg about a week ago, and I popped that into iGor, on the theory that it wouldn't require the extended concentration of Love for Three Oranges or Dialogues of the Carmelites, which are my other two library movies. I checked Farinelli out because I'd seen it a few years ago, had some vague reaction, and then completely forgotten what that reaction was. Essentially, I was re-watching it to remind myself whether or not I had liked it.

A basic background: Farinelli is a movie about Carlo Broschi, stage name Farinelli, an eighteenth-century castrato who was supposed to have been the greatest singer who ever lived. He had a relatively short, intense career, making his debut at 15, and then retiring at 32 to sing for the Spanish court for the rest of his long life. When the movie came out, the great buzz-generating feature was that it showed Farinelli singing on stage. Since they don't make castrati any more, and there are no good recordings* available, the filmmakers had to use Almighty Technology to dub Farinelli's singing voice. They made a big fuss of announcing how they had electronically blended the voices of a soprano and a countertenor to do this, and everyone decided it was a remarkable technical achievement.

Wow. Jumpin' Jesus on a pogo stick. I'd forgotten, or maybe blocked from my mind, just how godawful Farinelli is. It's that special kind of godawful, where you can tell that the director had all the elements available to make a really good movie -- a fascinating subject, handsome actors, killer music, sumptuous production design -- and then killed the project with a bad script ineptly filmed.

The central conflict in Farinelli should have been Farinelli's choice to stay with his brother Riccardo, an inferior composer, in the face of a tempting offer to go to Covent Garden to sing for Handel. There should have been a sense either that Farinelli knew exactly what he was giving up by staying with Riccardo, or that he made an artistic decision that ended up being on the wrong side of music history. Instead, Farinelli gets to choose between a strutting, pompous, rude Handel who flaps around leering at him and a life of comfort, rock-star glamor, bad music, and co-dependency with Riccardo.

Perhaps this tack might have worked if we could have seen the emotional effect that Farinelli's choices have on him. But you don't. Stefano Dionisi is tall, slender, and has a beautiful face underneath his rather unfortunate 18th-century mullet, but his expression never changes. Whether he's burning up with fever, singing about the freedom he'll never have, having his manhood questioned by the most famous composer in England, making friends with a little boy who likes him for himself, desperately trying to make love to a beautiful woman, then lying back and watching Riccardo finish the job, or realizing that Riccardo is a hack composer, he does it all with the same stunned, frozen expression on his face. The film wants us to believe that he's a sensitive, misunderstood, mismanaged artist; instead, we see a stiff, uncaring glamor junkie. Which, again, could have been an interesting conflict, had the director done it consciously and explored it.

No one else's acting really matters. Farinelli is the heart of the film, and Dionisi is so stiff and wooden that everyone else's best efforts, including Jeroen Krabbe's scenery-chewing Handel, just bounces off of him.

In the middle of this biopic, there's a mystery subplot: given that (as we are told) Farinelli is unhappy with being a castrato, how did he come to be one? Who did this to him, and why? The film takes ninety minutes to tell us. We, on the other hand, being intelligent viewers who know the three great rules of mystery plotting -- 1) recognizing the Law of Economy of Characters, 2) figuring out who stands to gain from the deed, and 3) acknowledging the Clue Bat when it hits us in the face -- have solved the who and the why after the first fifteen minutes. We then spend the rest of the film wondering why this is supposed to be such a mystery. The Grand Reveal, which I suppose was meant to provoke tears of sorrow for Farinelli, provoked mainly a loud "Duh!"

There was one last opportunity for this film to save itself. It could have shown the eerie, unnaturally beautiful appeal of a castrato singer, not a woman, but not quite a man, something completely and utterly different from our modern experience of music and gender. The technological achievement of re-creating the sound of a lost voice promised so much. But here again, the good idea failed on points. Farinelli's singing voice was indeed beautiful and unearthly, but it was badly dubbed. Dionisi's mouth and throat clearly weren't doing what the music was doing, so there was no point of reference to connect this weird voice with the body on screen. There was no sense that the singing was coming from anywhere. The fact that the director inexplicably chose not to dub Farinelli's speaking voice as well, leaving it as Dionisi's natural, uncastrated baritenor, only heightened this disembodied, artificial effect.

All of that said, Farinelli wasn't a complete and utter failure. The mix of languages was a nice effect, and the subtitling is pretty good, as far as I can tell. Aside from Farinelli's mullet, the set and costume designs are gorgeous. Dramatically, there are a couple of moments that almost work -- the scene of young Carlo Broschi being rather dramatically warned against letting himself be castrated, his duel with a trumpet as a teenager, and the scene of Riccardo's final gift to Carlo. They're little glimpses of what Farinelli could have been. It was a bad movie, but at least it went down swinging.

*Yes, the Alessandro Moreschi recording. Even for 1902 - 1904, the sound quality is bad, and Moreschi sounds like he's parodying opera singers rather than actually doing serious singing. That, or someone's doing something nasty to a cat in the Vatican.


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 25th, 2007 05:39 pm (UTC)
Interesting thoughts about Farinelli. I watched it about 10 years ago and I remember having strong feelings about it. I thought the story was horribly tragic.

I think your comments are all right on the mark, from what I can remember. I don't remember the acting, but I wasn't nearly as critical about acting as I am now.

It's funny that you just watched and then reviewed this movie as I was just telling someone recently that they might enjoy it. Now I can't remember who I said it to, but I don't go around recommending that movie often!
Jun. 25th, 2007 05:48 pm (UTC)
I think "horribly tragic" was certainly what the director was aiming for. I think the reason it didn't work (for me, at least) was that there was never a sense of what the tragedy was. Was it Farinelli's castration? His co-dependence with Riccardo? His missed chance with Handel? With Benedict? The fact that he retired from the stage at 32 to sing for the King of Spain for the rest of his life?

Those are all valid directions for tragedy in a movie like this. But the film never really chooses one of them to explore the tragic potential fully. It never really makes that commitment.
Jun. 25th, 2007 08:49 pm (UTC)
I think I was really saddened by Farinelli's inability to have a sexual relationship with this woman he was clearly in love with. I thought his brother was kind of slimey and it seemed awfully sad (and horrifying) that she was making love to his brother. Didn't they have any imagination? Sheesh.

I don't remember the missed Handel thing at all. I thought his relationship with brother was horrible.

I think I have to go look him up on Wikipedia now:)
Jun. 26th, 2007 01:10 am (UTC)
There were elements of all those tragedies in the movie, but I didn't think it focused enough on any one of them to bring it out in a satisfying way. Of all of them, the co-dependency of Carlo and Riccardo was the most developed, but it was done with Clue-By-Fours, so it wasn't exactly subtle.
Jun. 26th, 2007 01:33 am (UTC)
I'm totally with you on the Clue-By-Fours. Maybe that is one of the reasons I was so horrified by their relationship. I was relieved to read on wikipedia that his sexual exploits had no basis.

It was definitely not a subtle movie. Seems like you prefer not to be whacked in the head (just a guess:)). I wonder how much I would hate it now, ten years later. Or is it 12? I've certainly changed a lot since I saw the movie.
Jun. 26th, 2007 05:09 am (UTC)
I must admit, I prefer to be the one whacking people on the head, myself.
Jun. 26th, 2007 11:46 am (UTC)
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Jun. 26th, 2007 01:12 am (UTC)
It's gorgeously done, so it has that going for it. Even the ugly things are really pretty, and Stefano Dionisi is definitely easy on the eyes. And the music is pretty, if you don't watch too closely. Check it out of a library, though -- don't pay to rent it.
Jun. 26th, 2007 12:52 am (UTC)
Fascinating review. I vividly recall the movie which I saw when it came out. I completely agree with everything negative you said about it, but having admitted that, I still think if someone in my family rented it I would definitely watch it again.
Jun. 26th, 2007 01:13 am (UTC)
It has that compellingness that a lot of near-miss movies do. There's so much up there on screen that's good -- handsome actors, gorgous costumes, music to die for -- that it's eminently watchable, even as you think, wow, what an awful movie.
Jun. 27th, 2007 02:11 am (UTC)
I remember when this film came out, and I wanted to see it but didn't. Then I forgot all about it because no one ever talks about it. Now I know why.

Still, if I ever run across a free copy, I just might take a gander at it.
Jun. 27th, 2007 03:26 am (UTC)
It got quite a bit of buzz when it came out, for its subject matter and the Technologically Done Voice. It was a nominee for the foreign-language Oscar, as well, and then interest just died.
Jun. 27th, 2007 12:14 pm (UTC)
I saw a commercial on TV for this movie years ago! I didn't get a chance to see it, but I guess I shouldn't now, huh?:) You did get me curious so I read about him on Wiki. I had no idea singers were castrated!
Jun. 27th, 2007 02:44 pm (UTC)
The castrati are a dirty little secret of music history. Not many people who haven't studied music really know about them, and that may have been part of the appeal of Farinelli the movie -- a look into this weird, little-known aspect of classical music, which most people don't know much about anyway.

Some cultural knowledge of castrati survives in Europe and America, I think -- people sometimes say of a man who was kicked in the balls that "he's singing soprano now," but I think most people don't really know much about castrati.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )


by Illsaysheis

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