Home Video Hovel: Farinelli, by David Bax
In Gérard Corbiau’s Farinelli, cups and pools of milky white liquid abound. They come in the form of creams and medicines and other things but their significance isn’t clear until nearly the end of the film, when a flashback delivers a shocking reveal. Unfortunately, that motif is one of the few notes of grace or nuance in the entire movie. The rest of it consists of pseudo-artsy flourishes like a recurring dream of a horse’s mane blowing in the wind or nearly campy moments like a desperate character hiding in the bowels of a theater like the Phantom of the Opera. There’s an almost funny but mostly exhausting lack of subtlety to the whole affair; for a movie largely concerned with the difference between virtuosity and artistry, Farinelli displays very little of either.
Farinelli was the stage name of acclaimed Italian opera singer Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi. The reason for his shockingly high vocal register can be found in the film’s subtitle, Il castrato. Taking place over a large section of the mid-18th century, Farinelli follows Carlo and his brother, the composer Riccardo Broschi, as they gain fame throughout Europe. Well, Carlo gains fame. It seems to be understood by everyone that the castrato’s voice is the draw, not Riccardo’s vulgar, bombastic compositions. Even Riccardo seems to know this. He keeps his brother around by dangling his unfinished masterpiece in front of him like a carrot. He even insists on sharing lovers, Dead Ringers-style, despite Carlo being the only one who draws any female attention.
Stefano Dionisi, who plays Carlo, and Enrico Lo Verso, who plays Riccardo, are at least convincing as brothers, if not as human beings. Most of talent, though, lies in the older cast. Character actor Jeroen Krabbé plays Georg Friedrich Händel and the underrated Omero Antonutti–a veteran of the Taviani brothers’ films and perhaps only known to most American audiences as the narrator of Life Is Beautiful–plays the young Carlo’s singing instructor.
Farinelli is lush and theatrical in the way you’d expect a movie about an opera singer to be but, somehow, it’s also dry and dull. It lacks the fantastical bent that opera often offers. In its place is overcooked drama, sturm und drang and cringing eroticism. It’s so much the boilerplate opulent period piece that, when Carlo develops an unnamed, romanticized, swooning illness, the movie descends (or maybe rises) into parody. Farinelli was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar the year of its release and it’s proof that, even a quarter century ago, submissions for that category were mostly undiscernible, middlebrow pap. Farinelli represented Belgium and Chantal Akerman made a movie the same year. I haven’t seen it but, I’m just saying, it’s gotta be better than this.
Farinelli is gaudy but, if that’s what you want, the transfer on Film Movement’s new Blu-ray possesses fidelity both to the rich color palette and to the filmic texture of the source. The stereo audio is loud and crisp, with a the range necessary to relay everything from the low crashing of horse’s hooves to the highest notes sung by Carlo.
Special features include a making-of featurette, a behind the scenes featurette and an essay by Kenji Fujishima.