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)

May 12, 2010


1949 film
directed by Alessandro Blasetti
based on the novel by Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman
written by Alessandro Blasetti, Mario Chiari, Diego Fabbri, Jean-Georges Auriol, Antonio Pietrangeli, Cesare Zavattini, Emilio Cecchi, Vitaliano Brancati, Corrado Pavolini, Lionello De Felice, Alberto Vecchietti, Umberto Barbaro, Suso Checchi d'Amico, Renato Castellani

(my review of the 1854 novel, from which this is based)


Things have changed in Rome under the rule of Constantine. Laws have already been put in place outlawing the persecution of any foreign religions and word is starting to spread that the emperor is now considering a personal conversion to Christianity and will outlaw slavery itself. Some see this as the light of a new day, or as empty politics, or as something that won't have much of a profound effect at all, but many feel it's a genuine threat. Why change things? Why stir the pot? Why was the way of their fathers' day so bad?

In the middle of these events are two men. One is Senator Fabius, a wealthy patron who embraces his Christian servants and proudly dreams of a future of liberty and peace. The other is Fulvius, a prelate left in charge during an extended (and unexplained) foreign trip on Constantine's part. He wants things to stay as they were and feels the best way to change the emperor's mind is to lead a public uprising against the blooming religion. So he hatches a plan ...

Before you know it, Fabius is struck dead and Christians are not only blamed for that crime, but for further profaning the gods of Rome by using a statue as a weapon. Charges rise on both sides, and it all builds to a mass persecution culminating in the bloody arena.



This was one of, if not the, first big studio period epics made in Italy following the devastation of the war and, thanks to joint funding (and a handful of headlining stars) from France and a director already famous for epics made under Mussolini's reign, they came out of the gate hard and strong. The open air studio lots and richly textured costumes are fantastic and lively, far more so than they'd be over the years as hundreds of cheaper knockoffs would reuse them. From Fabius's gallant party, to the public streets, to a horrific arena draped with dozens of dead or dying people, everything feels both theatrical and real, as though it truly had been lived in since ancient times.

And the direction. Wow. Though his career was somewhat marred by his propagandist efforts, Blasetti is a genuinely gifted filmmaker who creates lyrical, flowing scenes. Take, for instance, the introduction of Fabiola, the title character and daughter of Fabius who I'll explore in a moment. First glimpsed while sleeping freely on a beach, almost like a gift the heavens just birthed to us, Fabiola (played by the instantly captivating Michèle Morgan), is next seen in a garden, standing so perfectly amongst statues that it's not until she moves that we know she's not one of them.

And he sure doesn't skimp on the action. As I've mentioned, the big climax in the arena is an absolute carnival of carnage. People nailed to beams, burned or flayed alive, screaming as packs of lions set in. It's brutal, it's shocking, it's perfectly photographed, but what's most important is that it's meaningful. This isn't violence that's supposed to make us smile in glee as we hand over our bucks for a ticket to exploitation, it's something that genuinely makes us cringe, makes us question in anger how it's come to this, makes us wince for the people we've come to know over the last hour. And as heroes take up the weapons of gladiators for a final fight, the well-choreographed struggle feels like a real last proud act of desperation instead of the trope it would become.

As I've stated on this site before, I'm not a fan of Cardinal Wiseman's original novel, which I found to be naive, generalistic, and just plain stupid in its views. Here, Blasetti and his squadron of writers, among whom were the top talents of the time, really made the material sing. While it does establish many Swords & Sandals tropes and it veers even farther from the historical record than Wiseman's misinterpretation, it makes for an altogether stronger story. Here, it's not a world where all Christians are good and all Pagans are bad, it's all about genuine humans and politics and resources and the personal threat one feels when they're told what they believe is wrong.

Let's look at a pair of characters that make things more ambiguous. In the book, Fulvius was a loving father, but his drunken partying and Pagan ways made him lazy and thoughtless. Here (ably played by Michel Simon), he still throws back many a drink and stages one hell of a party, but his robust speeches against greed and tyranny are in interesting, colorful, real contrast against his own appearance as a well-fed man lounging on a throne with a rich little dog in his arms. Another is Sira, played by Elisa Cegani. While the Fabiola of the books had two opposing servants, one a kind and penitent Christian, the other a backstabbing occultist, here they're masterfully combined into a single individual. Sira starts as a soothsaying Egyptian who casts bad fortunes and accusations at people she simply doesn't like, but she later starts doubting herself when she's confronted by the genuine innocents her words have condemned. Though she largely disappears in the second half, it's a great setup and fully represents the more complex and mature take these people have on the material.

Which then brings us to Fabiola. As in the book, she starts out a bit of a rich snob who eventually comes to understand and care for the repressed minority. The interesting change is that she no longer converts just to be closer to a Christ she suddenly believes in. No, it's more that her youthful naivete is crushed by her father's death and she finds herself questioning the intentions of the people she thought were her father's friends, especially when they start using his murder as a symbol for ideas the man would valiantly oppose in life.

Even then, the characters who do fully represent the opposing dynamics of the book are really nicely handled. Sebastian (the handsome but largely forgettable Massimo Girotti) is a public leader in the army and a private leader in the church, who eventually martyrs himself when ordered to persecute his own people. There, he was a largely empty character painted with such glory that he became ridiculous, but here he's been trimmed down to a supporting role, showing up just enough to make an initial presence, then going out in a genuinely moving and inspiring way that has less to do with accepting Christ as it does promoting peace and liberty.

On the other side is Fulvius, the conniving prelate left in charge of an Empire he's increasingly at odds with. We know he'll eventually suffer upon Contantine's return, but one can relate to his desire to manipulate, to work back the kingdom he now finds himself at the reins of. As played by the deliciously severe Louis Salou, what could have been a typical sneering villain is instead a man who sees the catastrophic effects such sweeping changes will have on an empire he's entirely comfortable with.

However ...

The biggest problem with the film is that they felt the need to invent a completely new character and actually make him the lead. A gladiator sent to Rome on a secret mission from Constantine (we never really find out for what), the oddly named Rual initially hides his Christianity in an attempt to get ingrained amongst Fulvius's posse. But that plot thread never really goes anywhere, so he eventually rises up as a lunkheaded leader of the Christians following Sebastian's demise. Dropping an everyman into events isn't a bad idea, but he's just so poorly glued in here and pushes all the major players back into secondary positions. Much of this plot could easily have been reworked to headline Sebastian and Fabiola without compromising their historical traditions.

And Henri Vidal's performance doesn't help. He's certainly got an impressive physique and charismatic leading man looks, but he just won't stop moving. Approaching the character of Rual as a hyperactive spaz, he's constantly flexing and bounding his way through what should be thoughtful scenes, and even kisses with the rapid smack of a woodpecker.

Probably the biggest strike against the movie, and it's genuine, is that the only version available is an English dub that's been cut by over an hour. I actually found the dub itself (written by Marc Connelly, Fred Pressberger, and Forrest Izard) to be of a much higher quality than many of the era, but hacking an entire hour out of a film is never a benefit. They struggle so hard to cover the gaps with sporadic narration, but it's not only delivered by a voice that should be accompanied by a "gee whiz" kid named Timmy who asks obvious questions, but there's a lot of obvious gaps it never even tries to cover as characters like Sira just totally drop out of the narrative or Rual goes from imprisoned to free to imprisoned to free.


The lead is a stapled-on lunkhead and the only available cut has lost an hour, but it's a rousing and watchable predecessor to the Swords & Sandals movement that's still much more thoughtful, intelligent, and just plain well made than a good majority of what followed.

(internet movie database)