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Johanna, a young drug addict, falls into a deep coma after an accident. Doctors miraculously manage to save her from death's doorstep. Touched by grace, Johanna cures patients by offering her body. The head doctor is frustrated by her continued rejection of him and allies himself with the outraged hospital authorities. They wage war against her but the grateful patients join forces to protect her. This is a filmic and musical interpretation of the Passion of Joan of Arc. Written by
Remarkable that it works at all: more remarkable that it works rather well
Is Opera for you? If so, Johanna is rather more than opera transferred to the screen. New opera is incredibly expensive to produce costs might run close to a million, yet tickets cost more than a trip to the cinema and many people prefer to see well-known operas rather than new works. So can cinema be an outlet for emerging operatic talent? And does it work as cinema? Johanna is a reworking of the story of Joan of Arc. In this modern 'version', she is a patient in a Budapest hospital and also turns out to be a drug addict. Having saved her from a terrible road accident, the staff realise she has nowhere to go, but a young doctor is attracted to her and persuades the hospital to keep her on as a nurse if he trains her up. Soon she is performing miraculous cures achieved largely it seems by having sex with the male patients. They recognise her saintly healing gifts but also brand her a whore. She says she does what she does, sacrificing her body, to save others out of pure love. The doctor suitor says he loves her and she should love only him; but she retorts that he does not know what love is.
From a cinematic point of view, an immediate advantage of opera is that we do not complain about plot holes or lack of realism that is not unusual in opera if it makes conceptual or symbolic sense that is usually enough. A downside is that, even in the best of auditoriums, the purity of the sound quality does not quite equal that of an opera house. So how do we justify the transition to the screen? Is the spirit of the opera better conveyed? Polanski's transition from Shakespeare's theatre, for instance, evokes a realism, the sense of mud and filth in a rain-sodden Scottish countryside, that would be impossible on stage. The opening scenes of Johanna look promising: the dark and eerie setting of the old-fashioned hospital, the ghostly pallor of the patients in the dismal setting. But soon it becomes clear that the lack of visual lustre is more about budget than choice. Most filmmakers, for instance, would have given visual emphasis to her first hit of morphine as she embraces the drug, but we are left to imagine her inner exhilaration as we would have to if it were a stage opera. Subtitles are also low quality and not always easy to read. Where the film really comes into its own however is when the revelation of Johanna's divine mission becomes clear, amidst contrasting scenes of light and dark. We recall the large amounts of exposed breasts earlier in the film that lead to the doctor's infatuation an obsession romanticised into 'love' and full of jealousy and moral self-righteousness. The tragedy of divine goodness hiding within the lowliest form gains momentum and as in all good operas proceeds to its inevitable climax.
By the end of the film, the forces of good and evil have become strongly polarised, the 'good' doctors sing of how they will 'praise' her (once she is out of their way). The rebuffed doctor arms himself with two needles (like the arms of a cross is he going to drug-rape her? kill her? frighten her?) - he becomes symbolic of the Christian Church that controls the eros within its faithful by worship of abstinence and conjugal rights; just as she becomes symbolic of true love to all mankind, philia, to which her sexuality becomes subservient.
The remarkable thing about Johanna, a new experimental opera written directly for the screen Zsofia Taller, is that it works at all. As an opera it works brilliantly. As a film, it just about proves its point.
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