Widely considered to be the last great Dario Argento film, Opera (promoted in the US under the unwieldy Agatha Christie-esque title Terror at the Opera) is a sharp movie with a fast pace and some great new ideas from the aging director. Argento was invited to La Scala after Phenomena and asked to produce and mount a stage opera; he was happy to do so, but the project never went anywhere due to artistic differences. Instead, he channeled that idea into his 1987 film, which concerns a production of Verdi’s Macbeth staged by a transparent avatar of himself, with heavy influences from the plot structure and recurring images of The Phantom of the Opera.
The film opens with an unseen prima donna diva (this role was to have been played by Vanessa Redgrave, but Argento, hilariously, simply fired Redgrave when she tried to throw her weight around for a higher salary; the role was reworked to be played entirely unseen) being injured after throwing a tantrum and storming out of the the theatre. Her understudy, Betty (Cristina Marsillach), feels unready for the role, but she is encouraged by the director, Marco (Ian Charleson), and her friend and agent, Mira (Daria Nicolodi). Marco is himself a newcomer to this realm, having made his name as a director of shocking horror films. After her first performance, she discovers that she has a fan in Inspector Alan Santini (Urbano Barberini), who is at the opera house to investigate the murder of an usher who was killed during the performance. The usher’s killer begins to stalk Betty, tying her up and taping needles beneath her eyes in order to force her to watch as he murders others: first stage manager Stefano (William McNamara), with whom Betty has a tryst; later, he stabs and slashes costumer Giulia (Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni).
This image, of eyes forced open and surrounded by pins, became the movie poster’s centerpiece, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s haunting, primal, and memorable, much more so than the film as a whole. It’s also hyper-real, like much of the film itself, which is a note in its favor. This is one of Argento’s darker movies, and the violence is visceral in a way that his earlier films, with their limited special effects and beautifully vibrant but utterly unrealistic blood palette, were not. Instead, reality is elevated to emulate the same ultra-aesthetic and slightly histrionic approach that permeates the operatic world, and although this is a much more successful approach to experimental film-making than is present in Argento’s other works, it doesn’t quite work for me. I know that this one is Brandon‘s favorite, but it never gels into a cohesive whole in the way that some of the director’s other films do, despite their more disparate plot structures or occasional tonal dissonance. This movie is certainly good, but it never quite manages to be great; not having seen any of Argento’s movies that followed this one (other than Mother of Tears, which is a very different animal), I’m not ready to say that this is the first evidence of his genius starting to crumble. If anything, this journey has taught me that Argento’s earlier, reputedly greater body of work is a mixed bag. For every Tenebrae, there is a Four Flies on Grey Velvet; for every Suspiria, a The Five Days (maybe the real lesson here is to never use a number in your title).
Despite its opulent and sumptuous visuals and its decision to forego many of Argento’s favorite tricks, Opera is a relative step down from the pedestal that he had largely lived atop in the ten years following Suspiria. Again, the killer is acting out repressed fantasies after something, in this case Betty, reminds him of an earlier, sexually violent experience. The reveal of the killer’s identity and, more importantly, his motivation, works for me not at all, and I feel like Opera is all but daring the audience to feel insulted by its audacious defiance of logic. It’s not illogical, per se, but it feels disingenuous. The killer’s age, upon reveal, is at odds with what we learn about his backstory through Betty’s flashbacks, and it feels more like a “what a twist!” moment than any of Argento’s other sudden, third act plot complications. Misleading clues–not red herrings, but clues that are utterly meaningless in the end–are scattered throughout, the most prominent being the gold bracelet with an engraved date. What’s the importance of the date? What year is engraved on the bracelet? Whose bracelet is it? How did Betty’s mother even die? Did the killer do it? None of these questions are answered.
Perhaps I’m being too hard on Opera. It’s an imperfect film, but that hardly differentiates it from Argento’s other works, even some of his unequivocal classics. Its hyper-realistic energy and frenetic camera work are wonderful, and there are some absolutely beautiful giant spectacles that are a lot of fun. Betty, despite Marsillach’s weak work and tepid screen presence (Argento has been quoted as saying he should have gotten an actress who could sing instead of hiring a singer and trying to force her to act) is much more of a triumphant final girl than his other heroines, excepting Jennifer Corvino. She’s quick on her feet and demonstrates surprising cunning for a character whose primary attribute is meekness. Still, other than the haunting image on the front of the box, there’s not much that gives Opera much staying power. It’s a paradoxically luminous but forgettable gem.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond