Opera (1987)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

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

Mother of Tears (2007)

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fourstar

campstamp

After nearly thirty years, Dario Argento returned to his “Three Mothers” trilogy, a sequence of films that began with Suspiria and continued with Inferno, and all of which centered around one of three ancient witches: Mater Suspiriorum of Suspiria, the Mother of Sighs, also known as Helena Markos; Mater Tenebrarum of Inferno, the Mother of Darkness; and Mater Lachrymarum, the titular Mother of Tears (and the titular third mother, per the original Italian title of La Terza madre). From the release of 1980’s Inferno until the premiere of Tears in 2007, there was much debate as to whether the trilogy would ever be concluded, and hope that it could be done so satisfactorily dwindled with each passing year. I went into this film expecting very little; perhaps that’s why, by the time the end credits rolled, I was shocked to discover that I had enjoyed it so damn much. Or maybe it’s because I’m sentimental.

Argento’s daughter with Daria Nicolodi, Asia Argento, has often discussed the contentious relationship between herself and her father. Hailed at birth as the “Princess of Horror,” Asia has revealed in interviews that she never felt as if she had Dario’s attention until she was old enough to begin appearing in front of the camera. His passion, she says, was for film over family. On the DVD of the film, released by Dimension Extreme (ugh), there is a half hour behind-the-scenes video that includes portions of a panel in which both Asia and her father participated; in it, Asia talks frankly (while Dario very subtly squirms next to her) about how working as a director made her a better actress, how she was effected by Argento and Nicolodi’s separation when she was nine, and how she convinced him to hire Nicolodi for Tears as a gesture of goodwill. “It was beautiful to see them working together on set,” she says. “Now the film’s finished and they’re back to not speaking to each other.” It’s an intensely personal nonfiction monologue, and that depth of intimacy extends into the film itself. When Asia’s character within the film weeps over photos of her long-dead mother with a baby–real photos of Daria and baby Asia–it’s intensely compelling in a way that may not be entirely earned by the film itself, but nonetheless produces a sympathetic emotional reaction that’s difficult to ignore.

The plot of Tears is much more straightforward than that of the previous two films in the trilogy. A priest uncovers a rune-covered centuries-old urn buried with a minor saint, and sends it to Roman museum curator Michael Pierce (Adam James), who he considers to be the foremost authority on occult paraphernalia. Vice-curator Giselle (Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni) and art restoration student Sarah Mandy (Asia Argento) impatiently open the box while he is out of the office. Within, they find a knife, three statues, and a small tunic that is insistently referred to throughout the film as a talisman. Sarah leaves to retrieve a book and returns to find Giselle being brutally murdered–three monsters slice open her abdomen and then strangle her with her own intestines–and flees. She is pursued by Mater Lachrimarum’s familiar, a monkey, and is cornered for a moment before hearing a disembodied woman’s voice directing her and escaping through a door that was locked only moments before. The police are incredulous, including stunningly handsome Detective Enzo Marchi (stunningly handsome Cristian Solimeno). An evil veil then begins to fall over Rome, as interpersonal violence breaks out on an unprecedented scale and witches begin to arrive in droves. How evil and violent is the influence of Lachrymarum (Moran Atias)? A mother hacks her toddler to death with a meat cleaver before murdering a priest and then slashing her own throat (an image that is reminiscent of the end of Tenebrae). Another mother throws her baby over the side of a bridge (the horror of the latter is somewhat mitigated by the fake baby’s bathetic tumble, but it’s still a better infant prop than the “baby” in American Sniper). By the end of the film, we’ve seen assaults, murders, churches being burned to the ground by neophytes of Lachrymarum’s coven, eye-mutilating torture, a woman’s head smashed open by repeated door slams, and a seven year old being cannibalized.

Michael disappears at the hands of the witches, and Sarah escapes the city by train after defeating a hench witch (Jun Ichikawa) and learning to turn invisible from the disembodied voice (just go with it). She makes her way to see an exorcist (Udo Kier of Suspiria, although this is a different character), who provides the exposition about the urn and its owner. In his vicary, she also meets Marta (Valeria Cavalli), a self-described white witch who recognizes Sarah as the daughter of the extremely powerful but deceased good witch Elisa Mandy (Nicolodi). Elisa, the two tell Sarah, was a great force for good who fought the powerful witch Helena Markos many years before; the Three Mothers killed her in revenge, but Helena’s battle with Elisa is what weakened her to the point that she could be vanquished pretty easily by Suzy Bannion in 1977. The events of Inferno are dismissed fairly offhandedly, as they mention another sister died in New York some years prior. After more deaths, Sarah tracks down Guglielmo De Witt (Philippe Leroy), an alchemist who provides her with a copy of Varelli’s The Three Mothers, from which she learns about methods of vanquishing the witches. Lachrymarum’s power grows as new acolytes join her, and the talisman/tunic ends the prolonged weakened state she has been in since the deaths of her sisters. Marta lives long enough to show Sarah how to cause her mother’s spirit to manifest, then is murdered along with her lover. Violence continues to roil as Sarah tries to find and kill the Mother of Tears.

Does it strain credibility that someone with an academic background in art history would be surprised by the three faces of Hecate, or need to research that motif? Is the “spirit” effect used to make Nicolodi’s spectral aura hilarious in its horribly Charmed-esque failure? Does the attempt to weld together a fairly disparate canon err a little too much on the side of contrivance? Is it weird that there’s a lingering shower scene of Asia, given that the director is her father? Do the witches who show up in Rome look like the lovechildren of Steven Spielberg’s interpretation of Lost Boys and the distinctly unmenacing vampires of the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie? Is there, perhaps, a little too much time spent training Sarah in her powers, given that she does very little in the way of magic and her ultimate triumph comes more from good hand-eye coordination than mysticism? Did I chuckle mirthlessly at the interview with Atias in which she talked about getting into the character of Lachrymarum, given that her entire “character” consists of being nude or nearly so while spouting ancient-sounding gibberish? The answer to all of these questions is “yes.” But did I thoroughly enjoy this movie? Also “yes.”

This movie is effectively creepy, pairing the psychological horror of a destabilizing and self-destructive society with the unhinged and violent imagery of a slasher, with some occult horror thrown in for good measure. Asia Argento turns in an absolutely dynamite performance, and looks gorgeous doing it, and her scenes with her mother are quietly beautiful despite the uncannily awful CGI–not the only bad CGI in the movie, but, to the movie’s credit, the effects are largely practical. The lighting and score are perfection, and the overall ambiance was reminiscent of Wes Craven’s work in the nineties like Scream and New Nightmare, with sumptuous visuals that play up earthtones in place of the vivid colors of Argento’s earlier work. Although the film seems to be rather widely reviled, it’s actually great–even perfect–in some places, and its weaker elements aren’t awful enough to weigh down the film as much as I expected.

This was a hard one to grade, but I’m going to have to give it four stars–with the Camp Stamp as caveat, the first time I’ve done so for an Argento movie. Partially, that’s in deference to the more silly elements (mostly the roving gangs of cackling witches and the eminently mockable sequences of Lachrymarum’s catacombs and catwalk sermons), but it’s also an admission that I can’t give this movie an exorbitant rating based on its straightforward merits alone. So much of my feelings about it are informed by the Argento-Nicolodi clan’s interpersonal relationships offscreen and my fondness for Suspiria that I couldn’t have found it within me to dislike this movie, even if it had truly been as awful as I was led to believe. Give Mother of Tears a chance; go in with an open mind, and you’ll enjoy yourself.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond