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I'm a big Werner Herzog fan. He's right on the edge of my top dozen all-time greatest filmmakers. So when I heard that he had worked in theater and opera as well as cinema, I'd always wanted to explore that facet of his art. Finally, with "Giovanni d'Arco", a 1989 filmed opera, I was given a chance to do just that.
I must say that, as much as I love it, I'm very much a novice when it comes to opera. For that reason, I won't go too far into analyzing the operatic aspects of the film. I've read other reviewers stating that the film's biggest flaw was the Italian libretto, written by Temistocle Solera. I thought the libretto was solid enough, but again, I don't really know up from down when it comes to opera. The only other filmed opera I've seen prior to this was Ingmar Bergman's 1975 film, "The Magic Flute" (Herzog also put on a production of "The Magic Flute", in 1999). I think Bergman's film is superior to Herzog's, but "Giovanna d'Arco" was an impressive effort nonetheless.
The "Giovanna d'Arco" opera, by the famous Giuseppe Verdi, is beautiful. In spite of my limited knowledge of opera, I thought the singers were excellent. The baritone especially, Renato Bruson, was fantastic. Susan Dunn, in the title role, and Vincenzo La Scola, the male lead, also impress. Overall, I thought all three felt a bit flat in the acting department, but the singing was simply gorgeous.
"Giovanna d'Arco" was directed for the stage by Herzog and Henning Von Gierke, and was directed for video by Herzog and Keith Cheetham. It was broadcast on television in 1989. The set design is stunning, and Herzog and Cheetham's method for filming the opera was quite effective. They don't take us inside the world on the stage as much as Bergman did in "The Magic Flute"; instead, they keep their distance, making us feel like a member of the live audience in the opera house (which, by the way, is itself incredibly beautiful I was instantly reminded of the opening segment in "Fitzcarraldo", or Visconti's "Senso").
The Joan of Arc story has been done so many times that one can imagine Herzog must have been somewhat reluctant to attempt to bring it back to life. Obviously, the first thing that is likely to come to mind is Dreyer's masterpiece, the 1928 film "The Passion of Joan of Arc". Even Georges Méliès's short film from the year 1900 was an amazing piece of early cinema. Later there was Bresson's "The Trial of Joan of Arc" a quality film, though not one of Bresson's best. I still haven't seen Victor Fleming's 1948 version of the story, starring Ingrid Bergman, which I've read mixed reviews about. I did, however, see another Joan or Arc film starring Ingrid Bergman a 1954 exercise in filmed theater by Roberto Rossellini called "Joan at the Stake", which was disappointing. More recently, of course, we have films like Luc Besson's "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc", which was simply awful.
As common as the Joan of Arc legend is in cinema, though, this operatic adaptation provides a completely different angle on it, and one can only imagine how powerfully Joan of Arc's story must have appealed to Herzog. It shares so many of his career-long themes. Herzog has always been a highly spiritual filmmaker, obsessed with stories about characters who accept gargantuan spiritual undertakings, not out of faith, but out of compulsion an outcry against a cold and unsympathetic universe. These characters are often on the fringes of sanity (or beyond them), such as the protagonists of "Signs of Life", "Aguirre, the Wrath of God", "The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser", "Heart of Glass", "Stroszek", "Woyzeck", or "Cobra Verde". Joan of Arc, with all her visions and apparitions, is right up Herzog's alley.
Herzog's films nearly always see his characters taking on tasks that are far too great for them, such as Fitzcarraldo trying to lug a steamship over a mountain. Herzog's protagonists, pulled apart internally by entropy and the inherent absurdity of existence, rebel against a meaningless universe. They act out in assertion of their tormented existence. This is what spirituality means in a Herzog film, and Joan of Arc fits nicely into this modus operandi of his. Like so many Herzogian heroes, she is spiritually compelled to undertake a colossal challenge that can only destroy her.
I know cinema quite well, but not opera at all, so I really have to judge "Giovanna d'Arco" as a film, not as an opera. Yet, if this were a traditional, non-operatic exercise in filmmaking, I would say it was a mediocre film, neither good nor bad. I would say that the story was engaging enough to hold your attention, but not much more. I would say that the film wasn't nearly as thematically profound as it could have been. My reaction would be very lukewarm. As a result, the opera really was the core of "Giovanna d'Arco" for me. The beauty of the music is what elevates this film from decent to legitimately good.
I'd love to hear someone truly knowledgeable in opera discuss how good "Giovanna d'Arco" is (or is not), strictly as an opera. I can't offer any input there, except to say that it impressed me as a novice. As a film, however, I'd say that it is good, but not great. For fans of Herzog, it's more of a curio than anything else. There really isn't much here to be recognized as Herzog, beyond the themes I mentioned earlier. All in all, however, I would recommend this film to anyone. It is a unique type of viewing experience that is far too scarcely seen by today's filmgoers. It was wonderful to have the opera brought into my home the way Herzog did here.
RATING: 7.00 out of 10 stars
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