Tosca Movie Review

When Guy Maddin decided to make a film of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet production of Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary, he decided to "smash the proscenium arch" and represent the movement using an expressionistic cinematic style. That's a welcome change from the stodgy, unimaginatively-taped performances that have cluttered up public television for decades. Benoit Jacquot finds his own way of tapping into that near-radical filmic approach, using Giacomo Puccini's opera Tosca as source material. His movie rediscovers the voluptuous, emotive, wine-dark splendor of opera as a rich audio-visual experience. In responding to the heat and passion of Tosca, Jacquot does something sublime: he not only shakes up the pretensions of opera as class warfare snobbery ("I go to the opera because I can afford the tickets, see my friends, and have a splendid dinner afterwards.") -- he also reminds us that the music video, abandoned in recent years by MTV's dumbed-down programming, doesn't necessarily have to be confined to the 3 to 5 minutes allotted to the flavor of the month.

With a running time of two hours, Tosca might feel a little small and slight for opera lovers. The melodramatic plot is easy to follow, a bodice-ripping tragedy about doomed painter Mario Cavaradossi (Roberto Alagna) shielding a political prisoner from a relentless police investigator, Scarpia (Ruggero Raimondi). When Mario's jealous mistress Tosca (Angela Gheorghiu) starts to believe Mario has been keeping the company of another woman, the blonde Mary Magdeline he's been painting for their church, she turns him in. But Scarpia demands more from her, making arrangements to spare Mario's life if in return Tosca sleeps with him. This results in a series of violent betrayals, murders, and tearful confessions.

If the material is slight and admittedly manipulative, Jacquot preserves Tosca's intoxicating ardor through his use of the camera. The way he photographs faces, the music pulsating around them, places full emphasis on the eyes and the mouth. As the voices soar, it becomes more than a standard close-up and feels like a reflection of the performer's soul. Crossing the minimalist set, tastefully arranged in the bare essentials of period set dressing (curtains, tables, candlesticks), the actors aren't framed in domestic interiors but within an all-encompassing black void. The impenetrable shadows that surround the Castel Saint'Angelo place Tosca in a no man's land, isolating performer, score, and sound.

Jacquot allows himself some bold flourishes, though -- including a dazzling 360-degree pan of Scarpia as he rages; a character's reflection on a knife's blade during a moment of epiphany; overhead shots of Tosca where her colorful dresses trail endlessly behind her. He's able to tap into that magical "anything can happen" thrill of live performance without ever revealing the audience, though he's also willing to take turns into surrealism and dreamscapes (haunting insert shots of painterly landscapes, forests, waterways, and moonlight feel like poetry).

One of Jacquot's most imaginative choices, which he might have taken a little further as counterpoint to the hyper-reality of the performance, is the inclusion of black-and-white footage as the actors create the soundtrack inside a recording studio. It's most effective in cutaways as musicians and singers flip through their librettos or occasionally step out of character. It's a fascinating idea, one that if Jacquot had dared might have allowed insight into the fullness of their creative process. One can applaud Tosca for being a bold gesture nonetheless, and it might open doors for viewers who were always turned off by the concept of opera as a boring pastime. In that sense, Tosca is a valuable cultural tool. Perhaps it'll even inspire a more ambitious filmmaker to tackle a deeper, subtler, more substantial opera in the future. But you've got to start somewhere.


Comments

Tosca Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: NR, 2001

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