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.