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Fitzcarraldo Movie Review

herzog film werner opera

1982 – Werner Herzog –

Those who say that epic tasks have not been undertaken since the mythical days of Achilles and Odysseus should look at this odd and amazing film. Werner Herzog tells the story of a man in 1890s Peru obsessed with building an opera house in the Amazon jungle. The centerpiece of his odyssey up the river and the moment the film lingers over the longest is the attempt to organize hundreds of Indian workers to haul a 320-ton steamship over a hill to reach the next tributary. Herzog reportedly wanted to make the ship bigger and the gradient steeper than those encountered by the real-life character on whom the film is based. (The real Fitzcarraldo simply disassembled the boat and put it back together on the other side.)

Fitzcarraldo resists comparisons with other movies, even perhaps with others by Herzog (this is his only film with a happy ending). One of its most intriguing aspects is the film's seeming refusal to adopt a consistent point of view: is Fitzcarraldo (Klaus Kinski) to be admired for his artistic passions and his valiant task, or is he to be pitied for his blindness to native customs, a flaw all too typical of the colonizers of his day? Most people who have written about the film take one view or the other. But Herzog may be seeking a more ambiguous response, and evidence for both views may be found.

The movie introduces Fitzcarraldo and Molly (Claudia Cardinale) as likable eccentrics who have traveled over two days and a thousand miles to hear the great Caruso. As they rush to catch the performance, they use nothing more than their desperation and their passion for opera to talk their way past the usher (who joins them in the back of the theater for the performance.) The many shots of the steamboat chugging up the Amazon dwarfed by the towering jungle while Fitzcarraldo has Caruso pouring out of the phonograph horn stress the lyricism and passion of his undertaking. Fitzcarraldo also includes a stop along the way with two missionaries who measure the Indians' religious progress by the degree their converts separate themselves from the less “civilized” natives up river. Herzog's career has been characterized by a continual respect for otherness, so many viewers will be inclined to see a criticism of the Europeans (though all of the monied characters are presented far worse than Fitzcarraldo). The combination of the quest Fitzcarraldo takes on and the formidable, unspoiled areas he encounters guarantee that most viewers' response will be a complex, ambiguous one. Such an atypical movie could elicit no less.

(Final note: as the letterboxing of widescreen films becomes even more commonplace in newer video formats like DVD, which can hold both versions on one disc, Herzog should be a director whose work will benefit greatly. Some of Fitzcarraldo's most powerful moments derive from the contrast of inching the steamship up the hill and later in watching it swirl briefly out of control as it heads for the Pongo. These images lose much of their vastness when cropped for a pan-and-scan presentation.)

Cast: Klaus Kinski (Fitzcarraldo), Claudia Cardinale (Molly), Jose Lewgoy (Don Aquilino), Miguel Angel Fuentes (Cholo), Paul Hittscher (Orinoco), Huerequeque Enrique Bohorquez (Cook), Grand Otelo (Station Master), Peter Berling (Opera Manager), David Perez Espinosa (Chief of Campa Indians), Milton Nascimento (Usher at Opera House), Rui Polanah (Rubber Baron), Salvador Godinez (Old Missionary), Dieter Milz (Young Missionary), William L. Rose (Notary), Screenwriter: Werner Herzog Cinematographer: Thomas Mauch Composer: Popol Vuh Producer: Werner Herzog for Project Filmproduktion MPAA Rating: PG Running Time: 157 minutes Format: VHS Awards: Cannes Film Festival, 1982: Best Director (Werner Herzog).

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