I, Don Giovanni -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
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NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

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"I, Don Giovanni" is lushly photographed and grandly conceived yet this movie about musical genius never comes alive. Veteran Spanish auteur Carlos Saura means to plumb the backstory, as it were, behind Mozart's masterpiece but there is something altogether unconvincing about how he contrives to show art imitating life and visa versa.

There's a line late in the movie where Mozart urges his librettist to finish the last act because they open in a week. Now it may be true that in that era operas were written off-the-cuff, days before the first performance, but it sounds like forced melodrama, as does most of the movie. (In fact, the historical rumor of last-minute changes has usually focused on the overture.) Opera buffs may enjoy this "making-of" re-imagining of "Don Giovanni," but the film feels like a museum piece rather than anything that can breathe theatrical life outside of film festivals.

Undoubtedly the most interesting thing about the film is the concentration not on Mozart but on that librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte (Lorenzo Balducci). Smart move because he is not only the forgotten player in the Mozart oeuvre but a man with a fascinating life story.

A Jew who converted to Christianity in 1763 to marry well, Da Ponte became a priest, fathered a child by a mistress, opened a bordello, then got banished from Venice to Vienna where the emperor suggested he pair with Mozart (Lino Guanciale) to create operas. Which he did, among them "Cosi fan tutte" and "The Marriage of Figaro."

The film clumsily sketches all this during a mostly disposable first act before getting down to the business of their collaboration on "Don Giovanni" (1787). As Saura and his co-writers, Raffaello Uboldi and Alessandro Vallini, tell it, the inspiration for yet another musical go at the Don Juan tale, already a tired operatic warhorse, came from all sorts of sources.

Primarily, Da Ponte uses his old friend, Casanova (Tobias Moretti), as a model for the rake Don Giovanni. Then at various stages characters and arias are inspired by warring divas and mistresses -- some being one and the same -- a father's death and Da Ponte's sudden embrace of love.

Actually Da Ponte doesn't really need Casanova as a source since he makes a fine rake himself. But true love finds him, not once but twice, in the ethereal beauty of Annetta (Emilia Verginelli), the daughter of an old gambling buddy back in Venice.

As creative masterstrokes occur to Da Ponte and Mozart, the scenes in question play out behind the characters as if behind a scrim on a stage. Indeed the theatrically of the entire film, exquisitely shot though it may be by Saura's frequent collaborator, Vittorio Storaro, gives "I, Don Giovanni" a musty feel. The fake exterior sets of Venice and Vienna don't help much either.

Even so, Saura never takes you into the heart of the opera. He stages flashes here and there, but his focus on the influences of the private lives of the authors on a great comic opera is didactic and, frankly, pedestrian, a thing belonging more in a doctoral thesis than in a film.

A viewer would have to know the opera fairly intimately to puzzle out all this backstory. The film never gives you a sense of the opera itself as it comes at you piecemeal. The film is too much of a study and not a living thing.

At least, the soundtrack is wonderful.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production companies: Lucky Red
Cast: Lorenzo Balducci, Lino Guanciale, Emilia Verginelli, Tobias Moretti
Director: Carlos Saura
Screenwriters: Carlos Saura, Raffaello Uboldi, Alessandro Vallini
Producers: Andrea Occhipinti, Andres Vicente Gomez, Igor Uboldi
Director of photography: Vittorio Storaro
Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Nicola Tescari
Costume designer: Birgit Hutter
Editor: Julia Juaniz
Sales: Roissy Films
No rating, 127 minutes