Belgian filmmaker Gerard Corbiau's "Farinelli" is in the grand European tradition of the sweeping, epic historical romance, heady and histrionic, replete with sumptuous costumes and decor. That its hero was one of the most famous castrati of the 18th Century has allowed Corbiau and his wife, Andree, his principal co-writer, to create a drama of extraordinary complexity, rich in meaning.
For all its emotional extravagance and sheer Baroque lushness, "Farinelli" is actually a triumph of taut control and superb structuring. Especially dazzling is the film's simulation of the castrato's 3 1/2-octave range achieved by combining the voices of counter-tenor Derek Lee Ragin and soprano Ewa Mallas Godlewska. When Farinelli sings, he sounds like nothing you've heard before--eerie, androgynous and electrifying.
According to the Corbiaus, Farinelli--born in Andrea, Naples, in 1705 as Carlo Broschi--was under the impression that at age 10 he was accidentally castrated during a fall from a horse that left him unconscious and near death. In any event, Carlo (Stefano Dionisi), who had had a beautiful voice as a chorister, is a blessing to his older composer brother Riccardo (Enrico Lo Verso), whose work shows off Carlo's amazing voice, which quickly captivates all of Europe. Carlo is spectacularly handsome, and his voice and looks cause women to swoon. His condition makes him a uniquely "safe" lover, but the Broschis' creative partnership extends to sharing their women.
An early meeting with composer George Frederick Handel (Jeroen Krabbe), however, foreshadows Carlo's inevitable acknowledgment that Riccardo is second-rate, capable of virtuosity rather than inspiration. Hired by a London theater to draw audiences away from Handel's operas at Covent Garden, Carlo craves to perform Handel's work itself. Carlo, consequently, becomes caught up in two conflicting, impassioned relationships. In his relationship with Riccardo we're able to see, writ large, the contradictions in many a loving relationship, shot through with feelings of guilt, betrayal, loyalty and obligation; in his relationship with Handel we discover the fierce competitiveness between artists who simultaneously need and destroy each other.
Carlo has had to live with the perverse irony that castration has enabled him to become a star and idol of women. Now, through the tension between these competing relationships, he begins discovering his destiny, which is to transform himself from a monster, a kind of freak music hall attraction--complete with feather headdresses a la Josephine Baker--into a great opera singer as a way of reclaiming and asserting his manhood. This is the heart of the film, yet the Corbiaus proceed, with a bold romanticism, to suggest that whereas the redemptive power of art can be treacherous that of love can be unequivocal.
Artistry abounds in every aspect of the film, which is as bravura in its acting as in its production design, and as glorious as its music. In addition to its three stars there are impeccable portrayals by Elsa Zylberstein as the young woman who loves both Broschis, Caroline Cellier as Carlo's worldly London impresario and Renaud du Peloux de Saint Roman as her gallant crippled son, with whom Carlo identifies and loves as his own son. As in his earlier, also Oscar-nominated "The Music Teacher," Corbiau again finds profound meaning in the tempestuous world of music.
* MPAA rating: R, for depiction of adult themes and sexuality. Times guidelines: The film deals with the castration of boys, although not graphically, and contains highly complex themes and fairly explicit scenes of lovemaking.
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'Farinelli' Stefano Dionisi: Carol Broschi Enrico Lo Verso: Riccardo Broschi Jeroen Krabbe: George Frideric Handel A Sony Pictures Classics presentation. Director Gerard Corbiau. Original screenplay Andree & Gerard Corbiau. Adapted for the screen by Marcel Beaulieu. Screenplay Andree Corbiau. Synopsis collaboration Teff Erhat & Michel Fessler. Producers Vera Belmont, Linda Gutenberg, Aldo Lado, Dominique Janne & Stephane Thenoz. Cinematographer Walther Vanden Ende. Editor Joelle Hache. Costumes Olga Berlutti, Anne de Laugardiere. Musical consultants Marc David, David Miller. Singers Derek Lee Ragin, Ewa Mallas Godlewska. Production designer Maria Cristina Reggio. In French and Italian, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.
* In limited release at the Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-5581; the Colorado, 2588 Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (818) 796-9704 , and the GCC Glendale Central, 501 N. Orange St., Glendale, (818) 549-9950.