Dario Argento
Opera
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Anchor Bay Entertainment has added to their already impressive Dario Argento Collection with one of the director's most sought titles, Opera. This movie has been previously available in America but only in a heavily edited version (titled Terror at the Opera). Now Anchor Bay has released a new edition, restored from original Italian vault materials. Uncut and uncensored, this DVD release allows Argento fans in America to finally see Opera as its director intended.

Easily Argento's finest film of the past decade and a half, Opera is an audacious technological marvel, a movie of breathtaking imagery, soaring tracking shots, and claustrophobic close-ups. Watching Opera is like taking a mini-lesson in Argento's stylistic obsessions. In the same way that Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest retreaded themes and situations (to glorious effect) that Hitchcock had worked with previously in Saboteur and The 39 Steps (among other movies), Opera feels like a classy summation of Argento's career. It liberally borrows from Argento's own previous films. From Phenomena, it borrows the near-psychic ability of animals to recognize danger, and from Suspiria, it borrows Argento's predilection for gothic imagery.

Largely set in the magnificent Regio Theater (in Parma, Italy), Opera stars Christina Marsillach as an understudy named Betty who takes center stage after an injury sidelines the leading lady. However, after she finds success with her opening-night performance, her post-show dalliance with a young stagehand (William McNamara) is interrupted by an intruder who ties her up and forces her to watch as he murders her lover. Who is this killer who sadistically tapes needles against Betty's eyes so as to ensure that she sees the horrible acts he commits?

John Charleson (of Chariots of Fire fame) plays an opera director named Marco, a veteran of horror movies, who brings his technical virtuosity to an avant-garde presentation of Verdi's Macbeth--an opera haunted by a series of disasters. (Argento is clearly having fun with this characterization, which is loosely based on himself.) Urbano Barberini plays a police detective who loves opera and takes an interest in Betty. He offers an unusual characterization. He's handsome but awkward and reserved. As the drama progresses, he becomes more lively and possibly even psychotic. And Daria Nicolodi plays Betty's manager. She's on hand mostly so she can be killed off in glorious fashion--with a special effect that required a small dynamite charge to be placed on her and detonated! (During a documentary included on Anchor Bay's DVD, Nicolodi talks about how she was afraid that Argento--her ex-husband--might have been trying to kill her.)

Opera came at a time in Argento's career when he had backed away from the camera, possibly as a result of the lukewarm reception given his Phenomena in 1984, a movie he insists in calling his own favorite. Turning instead to producing films for others, such as Demons for Lamberto Bava, Argento marked his time by directing television commercials. These commercials allowed him to develop the technology necessary for the elaborate camera movements he was meanwhile planning for his next feature film. During this period, Argento worked with cinematographer Ronnie Taylor in a Fiat commercial for Australian television. Taylor had achieved great success in America and England with Gandhi (1982) and A Chorus Line (1985). During their stint together in Australia, which involved elaborate tracking shots, Argento and Taylor formed a strong working relationship that would serve them well when Taylor later agreed to lens Opera. (Taylor also photographed Argento's ill-fated remake of The Phantom of the Opera, 1998).

Finally, in 1987, Argento was ready for his next feature. But this film would prove to be one of the most trying experiences of his career. Argento had searched long and wide for an actress capable of playing the leading role, eventually finding her in Spain. But Christina Marsillach proved to be uncooperative. She refused to accept Argento's direction, causing the shooting schedule to spiral out of control. Argento's methods of soliciting performances from his actresses can be demanding (some would say manipulative), and Marsillach bristled during the no-doubt uncomfortable, possibly even painful, requirements of her role.

Many of the movie's problems revolve around Betty's reaction to the death of her lover. Just minutes after seeing the killer thrust a large kitchen knife into the throat of her boyfriend, Betty runs out of the apartment and to the street below, where she runs into Marco (Charleson) and accepts his offer of a car ride. While she is clearly troubled, they proceed to have a conversation. In this scene, Marsillach is completely incapable of conveying trauma or shock (although she's fairly good at conveying confusion). This scene is so bad that I'm sure many viewers are tempted to give up on the movie at this point. But stick with the movie! Ultimately, Argento delivers a compelling explanation that makes Betty's reaction somewhat understandable. This means viewers who can't delay their impulse to judge the movie will likely have a hard time appreciating Opera. Indeed, Argento asks the audience to be exceptionally patient and wait for over an hour before this earlier scene makes much sense.

But do Argento fans come to his movies because of the acting and characterizations? Of course not. They're more interested in the long, intricate tracking shots (as when the camera assumes a point-of-view shot as a crow flies within an opera hall). They're more interested in the inventive, cold and calculating methods that Argento devises for the murder sequences (as when Daria Nicolodi looks through a keyhole and Argento's camera shows us a bullet in super-slow motion as it passes through the lock and toward Nicolodi's eye). They're more interested in the viscera and gross-out effects (as when the aforementioned crow plucks out the killer's eye and then, gulp, eats it!).

By design, Opera is an unflinching and brutal thriller that offers little compassion while meting out death. Its central images is captured on the movie's posters--Marsillach's eyes forced open with needles. This image can be interpreted as a metaphor for the act of film spectatorship, where audience members sit silently in a movie theater watching potentially gruesome acts take place. But while the audience members can avert their eyes if necessary, Betty has no alternative other than to watch. It's as if Argento has taken a representative audience member and placed her bound and gagged on center stage with her eyes propped open. (You WILL watch my movie!) The resulting movie is deliriously sadistic, a grand, operatic ode to the aesthetics of pain.

Nobody stages a murder scene with as much relish or technical virtuosity as Argento; however, his complete ambivalence toward his characters frequently makes Opera difficult to watch. While Hitchcock gave us a heartbreaking zoom out from the eye of Marion Crane as she lay dead on the bathroom floor of Psycho, Argento offers no such remorse. He only offers gaping wounds. So regardless of the magnificent imagery, Opera becomes a mechanical exercise in onscreen mayhem, staged for the benefit of Argento's blood-hungry fans.

Anchor Bay Entertainment's DVD presentation contains an excellent extra: a 36-minute documentary titled "Conducting Dario Argento's Opera," which features interviews with Argento, cinematographer Ronnie Taylor, composer Claudio Simonetti, stars Daria Nicolodi and Urbano Baberini, and more. The DVD package is without an audio commentary track. However, if you've listened to Argento's commentary for Anchor Bay's Phenomena and Tenebre, you'll know why no commentary track was recorded: Argento's command of the English language isn't strong enough for him to add comments on the spur of the moment. (His English is slow and halting.) The documentary serves some of the same purposes as an audio commentary track (in concentrated form) and provides several valuable insights into the making of Opera. For fans of the movie's soundtrack, Anchor Bay is also offering a "limited edition" release of Opera that includes an original Claudio Simonetti soundtrack CD.

 


Opera is now available on DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment in a new digital transfer (aspect ratio 2.35:1) enhanced for 16x9 televisions. The disc includes an all-new 36 minute documentary featuring interviews with director Dario Argento, cinematographer Ronnie Taylor, composer Claudio Simonetti, animatronics artist Sergio Stivaletti, and stars Daria Nicolodi and Urbano Barberini. Other special features: theatrical trailers, a Daemonia music video, and a Dario Argento bio. Opera is available as 1) a two-disc set that includes an original soundtrack CD and 2) a single disc without the soundtrack CD. Suggested retail price: $34.98 (double-disc set) and $24.98 (single disc). Opera is also available on VHS from Anchor Bay. Sugested retail price: $14.98. For more information, check out the Anchor Bay Entertainment Web site.