May 28, 2010

Il Trovatore

1949 film
directed by Carmine Gallone
based on the play by Antonio Garcia Gutierrez
and the opera by Giuseppe Verdi, Salvadore Commarano, Leone Emanuele Bardare

Carmine Gallone was starting to become a bit old-fashioned as a filmmaker in the time immediately following WWII, but he wasn't a pioneer of early Italian cinema for nothing ... as this film kinda sorta shows. His first work of this era wasn't so much an adaptation of Verdi's RIGOLETTO as it was a filmed staging which brought the cameras into the opera house and captured the actual actors, costumes, sets, even the orchestra. It was well done, but looked like what it was: a cheap way to put a big story on the screen in a time when all the film studios had been bombed to rubble. While the film of this review, made just three years later, starts in much the same way - an opening shot of the orchestra warming up with an overture beneath the credits, then holding on the stage as the curtains open - it quickly shows just how rapidly the industry rebuilt itself. Taking the actors out to actual castles among lush, rolling fields, we get a true sense of scope as 15th century armies who were only heard about on the stage are shown in full combat, and two lovers pull into an embrace beneath a bright sky filled with vibrant clouds.

And yet, in Gallone fashion, it doesn't always work. Up front, we're given a prologue that gathers up backstory spread throughout the first half of the opera and lets us clearly see what would otherwise be described. It all looks marvelous as huge crowds gather for the burning of a witch or a four-way joust between fully armored knights on horseback, but it messes with the structure of the work. Character introductions aren't as strong because they come before they should. Context is dropped because we don't have the element of hindsight. Worst of all, the songs in which they were described have been completely cut and replaced with a narrator and scripted dialogue for the actors which, while not badly executed, does feel jarring in what's supposed to be an opera. And it's not like Gallone didn't know he could just flashback to these things as they play under the songs, because he does use that trick to great effect at a few key points later on. That said, though, it's not unwatchable by any means. Just a bit disappointing.

And then there's the story. I agree that it's a classic opera and is filled with many unforgettable pieces of music, but it's hardly a masterpiece as an over-convoluted back story drops into the hands of lunkheaded personalities. You've got your two rivals, Count di Luna (Enzo Mascherini) and troubadour knight Manrico (Gino Sinimberghi), opposing leaders in the armies of feuding princes in 15th century Spain, and you've got the glamorous cipher of a love interest, Leonora (Vittorina Colonello), who fires the lust in both their loins. There could be a decent, if not exactly original, tale here as their struggle for her affections reflect and are reflected by the clashing of their armies, but that all takes a backstage to the convoluted history. A long time ago, you see, The Count's father had ordered the execution of a gypsy woman. In return, this woman's daughter (Gianna Pederzini) kidnapped the Count's brother, killed her own son (a completely ridiculous twist), and raised the young hostage into Manrico, the troubadour knight. So, yes, it's a battle between brothers, a twist revealed to all in the end just as everybody but the Count dies in the wake of big songs. Why don't I like it? One reason is that Verdi's idea of having his characters express their feelings is for them to latch onto key phrases that they simultaneously bark over and over and over again, just like a 5-year-old in a toy store, until they're either dragged off the screen or told what they wanted to hear. Another is the ending, which is so blatantly, ridiculously tragic that it feels like the writers (I haven't read the original play) came up with the most depressing finale they could conceive, then just worked backwards from there.

But Gallone and his cast and crew do a decent job with what they're given. Despite the structural problems mentioned above, and being a little behind the ways in his shooting and editing style (feels more like a movie from the 30s), Gallone does stage things quite well. Leonora getting dressed for a wedding as Manrico and his troops race on horseback to stop her. Manrico's foster-mother checking beneath the helmets of slain soldiers on a battlefield as she searches for her son. A woman hiding in the shadows of a dungeon as a passing line of white monks slowly pray for the souls of those to be executed the next morning. It's all very nicely done, and ably supported by a cast of genuine opera singers who give dynamic and charismatic performances that perfectly fit the screen without being too over the top, even as they're bellowing their hearts out. And the best is Mascherini as Count di Luna. In what could have been a sneering villain, he makes his character what the man is: the genuine tragic lead of the story. He tries his best to serve his forces and his Prince, and all he truly longs for is the hand of Leonora, but he keeps suffering and loosing due to the interference of everyone else. The choices of his father and prince. The vengeance of the gypsy's daughter. The appearance of Manrico. The strayed attentions of Leonora. The whole world is working against him, and when he fights back, he loses even more.

So, no, it's most certainly not a bad movie. I have problems with the story and some of the execution, but it's still very watchable, even rousing at times. However, as the only version available is a VHS without subtitles, I'm not sure who to recommend it for. Not many film historians would be interested due to it being a minor release that was already dated in comparison to other contemporary works. Casual film goers might be lost without a translation and, hey, not everybody likes opera. Even those who do have a taste for Verdi may be put off by the way several of his songs have either been trimmed or fully removed. It's a tough sell all around.

(wikipedia for opera)
(internet movie database)


Anthony Williams said...

Opera? Someone has become very hoity toity ;-). To be honest Opera has never been my thing literally, though I do appreciate things that are "Operatic" thematically. Hence why I would've likely reacted differently to the reveal that the two warring Knights are brothers.

I do recognize that bit from "Anvil Chorus". It's popped up in several movies, TV shows and commercials but right off the top of my head I can't think of any.

Anthony Williams said...

Almost forgot, nice touch with the "Current theme" box :-)

NoelCT said...

Opera? Someone has become very hoity toity ;-).

Ha! It's only my second and I don't have plans for more in the immediate future.

To be honest Opera has never been my thing literally,

Surprisingly, have yet to see a fat lady or viking horns.

though I do appreciate things that are "Operatic" thematically. Hence why I would've likely reacted differently to the reveal that the two warring Knights are brothers.

It's not a bad twist, but so poorly and obviously handled. They reveal it to us in the prologue, reveal it to one brother in the first half, then wait all the way till the ironic twist in the end to blow in on the other, when they had plenty of opportunities to do so earlier. And the whole feud, which could have laid in some fascinating, epic subtext, came off as little more than a basic cockfight over a woman.

Almost forgot, nice touch with the "Current theme" box :-)