March 24, 2010


1946 film
directed by Carmine Gallone
based on the play THE KING'S FOOL by Victor Hugo
and the opera by Giuseppe Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave

(1832 play - THE KING'S FOOL)

In his attempt to adapt Hugo's play to the Italian opera, Verdi came to discover just how unpopular a title it was amongst ruling parties. Nobody wanted to stage something where the king was an immoral, womanizing villain who led people down dark paths of sex and murder, so a back and forth began with censors that eventually allowed the production to be made. Albeit, with changes. The ruling monarch would now be a Duke, and his aged jester - whose daughter's innocence would be robbed in a malicious prank aimed at the prankster - would be called Rigoletto.

Being a complete layman when it comes to opera, I can't fairly get into details about singing ranges or song compositions, other than to say it was all nice and melodic and perfectly enhanced the story while driving it ever forward. However, I feel I can say a few things about the adaptation.

One of the main censorship issues is the stripping of much of the play's frank sexuality. Gone is the Duke sweeping from woman to woman during an opening ball. Gone is the open acknowledgement that he'd gone well beyond initial flirts with the wives and daughters of his angry court. Gone even is a clarification of a major shock in the middle that's meant to drive us through the dark second half. With it missing, much of where the tale goes feels nonsensical and extreme as bloody vengeance is sought for an act that either now didn't happen, or didn't go as far as it originally did. Once again, it's not clarified.

And in pulling up small moments to make into show numbers, some of the broader sweeps of the story are compressed in a way that make the play's genuine flaws more obvious, but without the great words of Hugo to gently push over them. An exiled old man who delivers a thematic curse? He was unnecessary there and is purely stapled on here. An assassin that plays a major part later on but is introduced rather haphazardly? The way he now just walks up to people and says "Got anyone you need me to kill?" is reckless nonsense that has me wondering what he's still doing on the street. A brutal, unforgettable sacrifice? Questionable there, rings totally hollow here. An ambiguously open finale? Feels entirely like the leadup to a non-existent final act.

But this isn't to say it's bad. A lot of the good stuff from the play is still great here, but what didn't work works even less, and some changes render the entire piece somewhat meaningless.

That's the opera, though, so let's move on to the broader film. Gallone, a famous director in the early years of Italian cinema, must have been a Verdi fan because he not only adapted several of the composer's works to the big screen, but even did a biopic of the man himself. Since many films back then were largely comparable to plays in their staging and design, it makes sense that he simply uses the actors, costumes, sets, and the very stage of the opera itself to make the movie, just ditching the audience and bringing his camera up with the actors. It works beautifully, the quiet yet precise cinematography showing off the huge, multi-tiered sets, which hold dozens of actors, each clad in meticulously textured and detailed outfits, all against lush, deep, partially animated backdrops.

The problem is the acting. As they pour forth from their talented diaphragms, most of the performers just stiffly drift from one pose to another with fixed expressions and little in the way of actual acting. I'm sure it sells just fine on a stage when seen from a distance, but this is the cinema, and once you put those people in medium-shots and close-ups, it feels hollow and forced. Even the able performers Mario Filippeschi, as the charming yet dastardly duke, and Marcella Govoni, as the jester's tragically innocent daughter, while they do slip some subtle flourishes in, painfully lack charisma when the camera nestles in tight.

The exception, however, is Tito Gobbi in the title role of Rigoletto the jester, who proves why he's a legend of the Italian stage. Even as he sinks into the necessary portrait poses, he's constantly moving, with an expressive face that's simultaneously subtle and broad, and dancing hands that search out business with his clothes or props or the arms of another actor. He truly lights up the screen, and when he laughs or cries, your emotions are right there with him.

It's an interesting film, one that should appeal to fans of opera, but I don't know that it would much interest anyone else, particularly with the story now lacking the ferocity of the punches Hugo gave it.

(clip of the famous song "La donna e mobile (How Fickle Women Are)")

(internet movie database)


Anthony Williams said...

With the elimination of the more sexual aspects of the 'The King's fool', Does it still keep the same lighter tone in the first act before shifting and if so, what does it substitue in place of the trysts?

NoelCT said...

It's quite weird in that respect, but I'm glad you asked. In the first half, they drop a lot of the somewhat more screwball aspects of the original play, so it feels less bawdy and amusing, and fails to set up a contrast that will make the midpoint twist a huge punch. And in place of the Duke's frequent trysts, the courtiers are now just purely after Rigoletto for his sharp jokes, instead of him being the convenient scapegoat in their rage against the monarch.

And that twist in the middle - I allow spoilers in the comments, so I'll reveal it's a rape - is now left so ambiguous, that it feels more like the Duke simply wooed the girl's heart instead of robbed her virtue, which makes her dad's quest for bloody revenge all the more nonsensical.

I bet half of that made sense. :p