Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Il Divo (better than Simon Cowell's...)

In Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo, a profile of long serving Italian Prime minister Giulio Andreotti who enjoyed close ties with both the Vatican and Italy’s criminal underworld, the director relishes combining gangster flick elements with a strong literary history that portrays Italy's institutions (political and religious) in a less than favourable light, working with the premise of Italy as a hotbed of vice. Government, church and private ambition are tangled up in what is a chillingly smooth and stylised, modern day Machiavellian crime thriller.

When the decision has clearly been made to entertain us with something of a caricature of Andreotti and his men, however, it is confusing that in the opening slides we are made to read several paragraphs of Italian history, a who’s who of political factions. The glossary excerpts prepare us for an academic critique rather than the historical drama that eventually follows. As such, the details are largely irrelevant and confusing.

But when the drama does come, it is deliciously creepy. Beautifully haunting set-pieces stay with you long after the film has finished: the image of the unflinching and docile Andreotti undergoing acupuncture to ease his migraines (his head a crown of pins) is one example, as is the running shot of Andreotti emotionlessly pacing through Rome’s empty night time streets surrounded by armed police escort, back stiff, nerves unwavering. Toni Servillo, who plays the Italian Prime Minister, does fantastically to convey such a sinister persona without so much as moving an eyebrow. His character, for all the film’s caricaturing, is filled with all the ambiguities of a powerful man losing his grip.

On top of some brilliant acting, the film as a whole looks good too. Attention to the details of the period (notably the suits, the decadence and the social order) does not falter, while the cinematography exhausts every opportunity for some dazzling camerawork, depicting events which are cool and calm one moment and then furiously unravelling the next through a range of different shots. Equally, the soundtrack manages to flit disorientatingly from melodic classical symphonies to ruthless industrial guitars in an incongruous mix that wouldn’t appear out of place in a Tarantino film. One of my only negative comments would be that, being such a self-consciously sleek film, Il Divo seems slightly too contrived at times. This said, the smile that creeps cross your face at the brutal ridiculousness of it all tells you that this too is one of the joys of watching the film.

It's just a shame that such a fantastic film shares it's name with those four cocks that Simon Cowel desses up in suits...

From Wainwright to Wagner: Prima Donna review

Something strange happened when I was in Manchester a few weeks ago, losing my opera virginity to Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna: people were laughing.

This was partly thanks to Steve Kirkham generating big laughs during his fantastic turn as the loveably idiotic, high-camp porter of ageing opera diva Régine, but comedy also came from the incongruity of an opera being set in a home (albeit a luxurious, aristocratic Parisian residence) rather than amidst the pomp of public society. Particularly when Régine sings that her maid should bring a pot of coffee with ‘twooo CUUUPS’, Wainwright appears to be gently mocking opera as an art form conservatively reserved for tales of high drama and steep falls from grace rather than domestic tea break requests. (Either that, or he's being unknowingly ridiculous). Also, the fact that Prima Donna is an opera about opera makes it appropriate that Wainwright - adolescence spent largely in the opera audience - passes some kind of comment about what opera has been and what it is. I'm flattering myself, but it felt a bit like he was sharing a joke with the (potentially high number of) opera first-timers who came to see his librettist debut.

But thankfully he indulges himself in the expectations of melodrama and the opera genre. There is the ageing high society belle, the demons she is unable to exorcise, and her modest helpers, all played out in front of the spangled backdrop of crumbling aristocracy and fading fame.

Speaking of backdrops (this time literal ones), Antony McDonald’s design is one of Prima Donna’s treats. What must have been a huge budget has enabled McDonald to create an extraordinary stunning world for Wainwright’s characters to live in. Sparse yet luxurious, wall-high double doors and silver-panelled rooms that cover the entire stage instantly and effortlessly sketch the wealth of the privileged European aristocracy. But the silver walls are tarnished, and what was once glittering now flashes menacingly at the audience. Peter Mumford’s beautiful lighting design transforms this vast, empty, panelled lounge into the jaws of some furiously gnashing monster.

And then there is the wardrobe. Beautifully classic black gowns jostle with brashly fluorescent green dinner suits in a highly stylised production, while Régine spends entire scenes swathed in huge amounts of fabric, the flagging star swallowed by her on-stage persona. The butler Phillipe’s white face, scarlet lips and vivid suit reminded me (annoyingly, at first) of Jack Nicholson’s psychedelic psychopath, the Joker, but Jonathan Summers’ booming drawl suggests pure monster rather than menace. It was astonishing how the strong cast are able to convey such a clear sense of character through their singing.

That said, considering the emotional complexity of the huge majority of Wainwright’s music, it was surprising to see such vivid, crystalized, and almost obvious characterisation. In a lot of other contexts this would have been a strength, but knowing how much more Wainwright has to offer left me hankering for some of that ambiguity.

So instead, the other of Prima Donna’s big strengths lies, as you might expect, in Rufus' music. Soaring, acrobatic melodies, notes held long and high, sail from the stage. They’re accessible too (i.e. appreciable to those without music degrees, Lordship titles and opera season tickets) but it’s clear to see that Wainwright has not compromised his art for a wider audience. For all its razzmatazz, style, comedy and caricature, Prima Donna manages to pack a surprisingly hard emotional punch as Wainwright relishes the chance to deliver a tragic, operatic finish.

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