starring Cristina Marsillach, Ian Charleson, Urbano Barberini, Daria Nicolodi
screenplay by Dario Argento, Franco Ferreni
directed by Dario Argento
by Walter Chaw The best of Dario Argento's films rework themes and images from Alfred Hitchcock with a level of flamboyance and twisted creativity that transform would-be genre knock-offs into something truly rare and valuable. Argento utilizes the constructions of Hitchcock as a framework for lurid, colour-drenched images and wickedly inventive death sequences that are among the most shocking and agonizing in the history of cinema. Often called "The Italian Hitchcock," I find the term "The Italian De Palma" to be closer to the mark, for their obsessions, for their mastery of highly technical mimicries, and, extra-textually, for both auteurs' decades-long slides into mere imitation and schlock. (Despite their similarities, Argento and De Palma to this day hate each other with a white-hot passion.)
Argento generally indulges in one of two types of films: the "giallo" (a complex whodunit with intricate murder scenes), and the "supernatural" (a dream-like meditation more interested in the impact of a shot than in coherence). Opera is closer to the giallo (Italian for "yellow"--so named because the pulp fiction penny-dreadfuls in Italy were published with yellow covers) in its establishment of a nigh impossible-to-solve murder mystery, yet more akin to the "supernatural" in its interest in high style over, at times, lucidity. But as with most Argento films, there seems to be an underlying trope here, if not an overt linear progression (or a deceptively simple linear progression). In Opera, Argento addresses the idea of voyeurism and suture that Hitchcock discusses in the majority of his films (particularly The Lady Vanishes, Rear Window, Psycho, and Vertigo) through repeated shots of eyes: the destruction of eyes, raven's eyes, eyes forced to see, and, most significantly, the actions and knowledge of the holders of the gaze.
Betty (Cristina Marsillach) is an opera singer's young understudy who, because of an unfortunate accident befalling the prima donna, is thrust into her first starring role as Lady Macbeth in Verdi's Macbeth. Following Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera (later also brought to the screen by Argento), a psychotic and unseen benefactor begins to stalk the lovely ingénue. In Opera, however, the "phantom" is a slasher; just prior to murdering Betty's friends, he ties her up and props her eyelids open with rows of needles that prevent her from blinking at the risk of severe ocular mutilation. Betty's situation is the involuntary transference of the audience's own voyeurism: a literal manifestation of our perverse inability to look away from a trio of the most grotesquely beautiful murders captured on screen. The awfulness of the acting within can be seen as a corollary to a kind of forced artificiality intended to transcend the fourth wall.
The supposition that Argento is playing with the culpable voyeurism of the viewer is supported by Betty's seemingly dismissive attitude towards what she has witnessed--her intense lack of concern and desire to protect herself from unpleasantness. Although many criticize Betty's apathy as a result of poor scripting and direction at best (misogyny at worst), consider that Argento's heroines are traditionally active in the solving of the central puzzle and the gathering of information (see Suspiria and Deep Red; in her relatively small role, even Tenebre's Daria Nicolodi is involved in the accumulation of knowledge). The passivity of Betty, then, must be seen as an anomaly with the purpose of commenting on an audience that has positioned itself in a place to voluntarily witness the horrors forced upon our heroine--and, like her, claim to somehow remain unaffected by the experience. It is instructive to note that the director of the opera in the film is himself an erstwhile director of horror films.
Opera is unusually graphic in regards to its gore, including an infamous (and utterly convincing) knife-through-jaw-into-mouth scene, a visceral cranial solution to a pesky telephone, and a grisly evisceration by dressmaker's shears. It features a dizzying bird's-eye-view perspective in a climactic carnage/chaos sequence that borrows heavily (as does Inferno) from Hitch's The Birds, and it points to the importance of score in the effectiveness of Argento's films. His brief infatuation with bad metal injures this film (and Phenomena in particular) and highlights the invaluable contribution of experimental synth group Goblin to Argento's finest pictures.
The ending of Opera, involving a statement that Betty has freed herself from the lessons of her past, is one that rings with ominous doubt. The sins of the fathers (or mothers), it seems, are not easily shaken. What is at first glance a happy conclusion should be read as the flawed hypothesis that our experiences do not shape our behaviours--that what we see and experience can somehow be held apart from our hearts and minds. (Grey old folks of the MPAA, take note.) Betty's rescue of a lizard serves the conflicted nature of the resolution--all seems well, but the stain on the soul is indelible. The much-discussed (and derided) closer, which is set upon the flowering green of a high mountain range where our Betty is dressed in a blue skirt and a flowing white blouse (stark contrasts to the body of the film's predominantly black wardrobe and dank interiors), is very possibly a dark parody of The Sound of Music: Betty as Maria Von Trapp and the subterfuge involving a pattern of abuse passed from mother to daughter a commentary on the vaguely authoritarian Teutonic undercurrent manifested in the behaviour of the jackbooted and nameless Captain Von Trapp. Argento winks at us by finishing a film named "Opera" with "the sound of music."
Visually arresting and viscerally challenging, Opera transcends its roots with intimations at larger themes (the culpability of the voyeur, the inherent evil of The Sound of Music) and a black wit, though it falls short of Argento's acknowledged masterpieces (Suspiria, Tenebre, Deep Red) in its uneven execution and occasional struggles to sustain interest between virtuoso gore sequences. Still, a firm second-tier product from the "Italian Hitchcock" is usually superior to the overwhelming majority of horror/slasher flicks.
Anchor Bay's THX-licensed DVD of Opera, now labelled "Version 2.0" after the first batch was recalled for quality-control issues, was well worth the wait. The anamorphically-enhanced 2.35:1 video transfer is every bit as breathtaking as the company's Suspiria release, strong on shadow detail and entirely free of artifacts and signs of age. If one didn't know better, one would think that Opera is a very recent production. Anchor Bay's dedication to classic Eurohorror is evidenced in the stunning care they have taken with every technical aspect of the presentation. The EX-enhanced Dolby Digital and ES-enhanced DTS tracks are amazing: A crow attack uses the discrete surround environment to powerful effect. Opera's is a rich mix--every ripped tissue has an orchestral character. Unfortunately, the looped dialogue is all the more obvious for its digital clarity, and the awful faux-metal score dominates.
A 36-minute documentary called "Conducting Dario Argento's Opera" features a remarkable amount of new information culled from behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Argento, cinematographer Ronnie Taylor, animatronics artist Sergio Stivaletti, composer Claudio Simonetti, and actors Daria Nicolodi and Urbano Barberini. Nicolodi shines in particular for her pluckiness in describing her reluctance to cooperate with the stunt behind a fabled keyhole death ("You see, I didn't trust the director!") and her irritation with what she perceives to be the incomprehensibility of the movie's Swiss ending. Also of interest is a description of an original epilogue (that honours my Sound of Music theory) and Argento's confession that he disliked his star Marsillach. The documentary is just fantastic--by itself, it makes owning this DVD imperative for the Argento-phile.
An international and domestic trailer, ludicrous music video by Daemonia composed of recording session video and snippets from the film, the THX Optimizer tests, beautifully-animated menus, and a 21-page Argento biography penned by Mark Wickum round out this sterling addition to Anchor Bay's heaven-sent "Dario Argento Collection." Originally published: October 31, 2001.