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"Kaiserin Von Oesterreich" (Empress of Austria) Convincing for the 21st century Audience
Since the 1950s when the Christmas times of 1955, 1956, 1957 began and SISSI Trilogy premiered, the charming role of Romy Schneider has captivated various viewers. Romy's youthful face has been so deeply associated with the face of young Elizabeth of Austria (1837-1898) that hardly anyone could imagine a different Sissi on screen. Any remake was bound to failure from the very start because Marischka gave viewers what they wanted: a glamorous dreamlike picture with the heights of splendor and delicacy. That dreamlike picture, though sometimes considered as "kitschy," has stood a test of time as "classic."
And yet, after more than 50 years, when the Christmas time 2009 began, a new SISI has premiered on ZDF, not a spectacular remake but a cure to the "kitsch" of saccharine sweetness and a challenging insight into the personality of Kaiserin Von Oesterreich. What has come out of it? Since the result has occurred ambiguous, let me first concentrate on the strong points of the movie.
Cristiana Capotondi in the lead emphasizes more a modern woman than the historical figure, though both aspects are there and they are considerably manifested. We get an insight into a spontaneous personality but also a very tactful politician, a sensible woman and a brave defender of personal freedom, the wife who stands at the side of her imperial husband but who does not agree to be a marionette...as the emperor nicely puts it, she is "the only monarch in Europe who says to her husband 'You must!'" Sisi is assertive and very up-to-date. At the same time, she is a good hearted empress who visits the orphanage and lovingly says "It is you who are beautiful," she is a caring mother who considers her son's psychological health superior to military career; yet, she is not a naive young "maeddel" (girl) who runs in a night dress through the corridors of the imperial court to tell her husband unbelievable news about...pregnancy... She is an emotionally mature mother and wife who understands the needs of her husband and of her kids. And that insight, which makes it more appealing psychologically than spectacularly (which is accurate historically) is really worth appraisal! Ms Capotondi does a fine job in this film!
As for Sisi's appearance, the director clearly took into consideration the famous portraits of Elizabeth, particularly the one by Franz Xaver Winterhalter but he also aimed at making the character look less melancholic and more practical. Ms Capotondi is definitely not Ms Schneider but...Ms Schneider was also not Elizabeth (the pressure she detested throughout her life and career). It is only what we, viewers, got used to and what some people still appear to do when associating Elizabeth with Ms Schneider. Therefore, by some, Ms Capotondi will never be accepted as new Sisi.
As for the rest of the characters and cast, David Rott is pretty good as emperor Franz Josef: quite sympathetic and talented yet I have some doubts concerning certain moments with him. Among other cast, I found Martina Gedeck as Sophie pretty accurate considering her appearance (similar to original pictures of Sophie Wittelsbach) and dominant style of behavior. She is Sisi's strict mother-in-law who can justify anything with the rules of the imperial court of the Habsburgs. Franziska Stavjanik as Countess Esterhazy also does a memorable job in her role of a secret informer that turns into an empathetic friend. Yet, there is one case with the cast: whoever will see the film in the original (German) will mostly hear the German accent rather than the Viennese one (= the desirable one in such a movie).
The film's another merit is the whole atmosphere supplied by sentimental soundtrack, wit (consider, for instance, the hilarious scene of imperial bath or a parrot saying the name of the empress during the imperial couple's incognito visit to the streets of Vienna), the authentic sets. As far as the locations are concerned, there are however, two inaccuracies: first Bad Ischl which shows no single indication of the Kaiservilla; second, St Michael's Church for the imperial wedding. As for the former, it is a serious shortcoming, as for the latter, the producers, perhaps, wanted to create a sort of reference to Marischka's SISSI (1955) where the splendid wedding scene (the final scene of the 1955 movie) was also filmed in Michaelerkirche near the Hofburg Palace, not in Augustinerkirche (Vienna) where the historical wedding of the imperial couple actually took place.
Yet, I have two major complaints about the movie. The first one is the neglect of the significant aspect at the court that was "Spanische Hofzeremoniell" - Spanish court ceremony - so much promoted at the time by the Habsburgs (in this case, Marischka's 1950s classic stands out as extraordinary and very accurate while SISI remains merely laughable); the second one is the depiction of Count Andrassy and his patriotic quest. Elizabeth is showed to meet him in various unpredictable places, including Posenhofen or a ball during the carnival in Venice. The empress wearing a mask is recognized by Andrassy and walks with him in the streets of Venice at night... My goodness, what have they thought? (ambiguous, laughable fantasy...)
All things considered, in order to like this film, you have to get rid of all previous expectations, interpretations, fantasies about Elizabeth of Austria and look at her from a new perspective, as a modern viewer. Indeed, there is one success of the film: SISI is a film about a 19th century woman whom the 21st century viewers will surely understand no matter if their tribute to her sounds like the Italian "E Viva La Mama!", German "Es Lebe Die Kaiserin Von Oesterreich!" or Hungarian "Elyen!" 6/10
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