Monday, March 21, 2011


So, part one of Chopping Mall's Dario Argento Week is his 1987 masterpiece Opera.

This is pitched, as a few of his films are, somewhere between straight up giallo whodunit and a tense psychological horror. With gruesome death scenes. So, you could say, it manages to do a bit of everything that's awesome about Italian cinema. Except Westerns. There are certainly no cowboys...

The basic premise sees Betty called in at the last minute to perform in the opera of MacBeth. The famous curse of the Scottish play has struck down the intended Lady MacBeth, leaving the role wide open for the young and inexperienced Betty. She steps up to the mark - and gets rave reviews - but from this moment on things really start to go wrong: lights crash to the floor on the opening night, staff members are found dead and then Betty encounters a mysterious masked man...

This guy, it turns out, has quite a sadistic edge to him and happily tied her up, tapes needles to the bottom of her eyes - so she can't close her eyes in horror, of course - and then precedes to stab her lover in front of her. Through the throat.

I shan't elaborate too much on the rest of the plot, as that would spoil the surprise, although perhaps that wouldn't matter too much. To my mind, the weakest element of Opera is that I really don't care that much who's responsible for the murders and - I suspect - Argento doesn't either. The combination of surprisingly few clues or half-remembered vital details (especially in comparison to some of his other films...) and the sheer indulgence of the murders (lookout for the one with the keyhole...) suggest that this is a film that's concerned less with who's doing the crime than er... simply enjoying watching the crime.

Its real strong point however is the astonishingly brilliant camera work. I suspect I'm going to have to spend most of this week hunting out alternative superlatives for the cinematography in Argento's films, but for now I must say that the visual element of Opera is simply stunning. It's hard to do it justice in screenshots, simply because this is less about camera angles than about camera movement; Argento's camera leads us through the film, ducking behind curtains, drawing back ominously, following the heels of characters as they walk. This is the real magic of the film; we never simply watch the action but rather are immersed in it. Argento throws the viewer into the scene, compelling us to watch the grisly details as surely as if it were our eyes that were forced open by needles.

Opera is certainly not everyone's film, it's certainly not simply a murder mystery and it's certainly not the best constructed story you'll watch/read/encounter. What it is, however, is utterly compelling viewing, visually astonishing and an awful lot of fun.

The only remaining points to note are the brilliance of the crows - surely the most threatening birds in cinema after those of The Birds - and, less brilliantly, the appalling choices made in the soundtrack. With brilliant excerpts of opera music, it seems such a shame to throw in the odd chunk of metal-ish guitar rock, which in most cases simply kills the atmosphere. It's a far cry, say, from the dipping-with-tension(-and-blood) soundtrack to Suspiria....

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