Dario Argento’s tenth film, Opera was inspired by his abortive attempts to direct an Opera (Verdi’s Rigoletto) and his long-standing interest with Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera. Rather than being a straight adaptation of the novel, the film simply takes the idea of a masked psychopath, obsessed with the understudy who has more talent than the Diva, who stalks the opera house. Taking its queue from sadomasochistic fantasies and the then current AIDS epidemic, the resultant film is one of the director’s finest achievements, a deliriously over-wrought and thrillingly obsessive film that buzzes around in the viewer’s head for days afterwards.
The understudy is Betty (Cristina Marsillach), who takes over the lead role in a stage production of Verdi’s Macbeth that is being directed by Marco (Ian Charleson) – best known for his horror films – after the Diva, The Great Mara Cecova, is hit by a car. Her brilliant performance is hugely acclaimed, but also attracts the attentions of a sadistic hooded killer, so Inspector Alan Santini (Urbano Barberini) is called in to investigate.
The period of production of Opera was a particularly difficult one, with Marsillach refusing to follow directions, Argento’s ex Daria Nicolodi becoming convinced the director was trying to kill her, Vanessa Redgrave making unreasonable demands to play Cecova and leaving the film (the part ultimately remaining off-screen), Ian Charleson getting seriously hurt in a car crash and having to play several scenes disabled (it’s not noticeable) before being diagnosed as HIV+, and to top it all off Argento’s father died. This strained highly charged production spills over into the film, informing the hothouse intrigue of Opera’s production of the cursed Macbeth.
Opera was Argento’s biggest budgeted film up to that time, and it looks it too. Although the extreme colour stylisation of Suspiria and Inferno are absent, the cinematography by Ronnie Taylor (Gandhi, Nonhosonno) is consistently beautiful. In addition, this is Argento’s most fluid film to date. Argento has always been a huge fan of camera movement, but this is scarcely more readily apparent than in Opera’s amazing visuals, with the ever-restless camera gliding constantly tracking, panning, or indulging in one of the numerous steadicam prowls. There’s also considerable use of slow-motion footage hypnotically woven into the film, and some brilliant editing by Franco Fraticelli. This was the last time Argento worked directly with the brilliant editor who had cut every one of his previous films bar Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and whose other credits include The Sect, Dellamorte Dellamore, My Dear Killer, Demons, and The Church.
Opera draws heavily on Argento’s previous films (although not as much as, say, Nonhosonno). For example, there are the vengeful animals, heavy metal music, and (incongruously) the Swiss location of Phenomena; the weird psycho flashbacks, brilliantly twisted comment on the fan/artist relationship, overt sexualisation, and self-referential nature of Tenebre; the amazing use of Verdi like Inferno; whilst Betty sitting in Marco’s car in the rain is a dead ringer for Suzy at the start of Suspiria. But far from just being a compendium of greatest hits, Opera sees Argento consistently re-inventing these themes and ideas to new and compulsive new ends.
The film contains two of Argento’s strongest and most daring images. First and most obviously is the director’s taunt to those who would close their eyes during his films – Betty’s eyes wide, forced to stare through an array of needles taped beneath her eyes, unable to close them without ripping her eyelids to shreds. The other key image is a close-up shot of the killer’s brain (reworked from the main title of Four Flies), pumping with blood. And as it pulses, the whole screen pulses with it, as if the image and the ideas behind it were so powerful they are almost ripping through the very fabric of the film itself.
What’s most notable about Opera is its heavy sexualised nature. Not in a literal sense, however – the film was made at the peak of the AIDS crisis, and Argento’s concern with this is paramount, the killer even wearing protective sheaths over his black gloves. It’s a film almost entirely without love, at least in the conventional sense – Betty is unable to sleep with Stefan, in the closest the film gets to a loving relationship. The only way sexual feeling can be consummated in the world of Opera is through violence, as the murders become a bizarre courting ritual between Betty and the killer, although for her it is more like rape, which explains one of the big complaints I’ve heard about this film – why Betty doesn’t tell anyone exactly what happened. In the same way countless rapes go unreported; Betty feels she has been violated, she can’t bear to think about it and desperately wants to forget. In this way, the film looks forward to the literal serial raping of The Stendhal Syndrome (in some ways I also find it echoes Four Flies in reverse).
One of the best performances in the film comes from Ian Charleson as the director Marco. As written, he’s not a particularly likeable character, but with some of the best lines, Charleson makes him one of the best things about the film. It’s a semi-autobiographical character by Argento (he has said as much in interviews), and Charleson has admitted that he did base the performance on watching the director at work. Barberini is also very good, and I find Marsillach to be a very appealing lead. Of course, her good looks don’t hurt.
And of course I can’t forget to mention the music. I’m no expert, but I do really rather like opera music, so I absolutely adored hearing so much of it in this film. I’d be happy just hearing the music, but the way in which Argento uses the music, and blends it brilliantly with the movement of the camera, cutting and onscreen images is absolutely breathtaking, and will impress even those who dislike opera music. There’s one particular sequence about half-way through where the mix of music and image is so utterly brilliant (even including when the music stops for just the eerie creaking of metal) that I actually have to remind myself to breathe. I almost feel that I just can’t take it; it’s just so utterly, hypnotically perfect. This sequence also includes (or begins with) what is quite possibly the greatest murder Argento has ever shot. It’s one of those mind-blowing moments of shockingly cruel genius that will simultaneously have your jaw bouncing off the floor, and your hand reaching for the rewind button.
But there’s not just opera music here. The score proper consists of some excellent pieces by Claudio Simonetti (including the lyrical principal theme), and the more acoustic electronic, but no less brilliant pieces by Brian Eno. And, of course, there’s the heavy metal, which makes for a very telling contrast during the high-powered murder scenes, but is slightly intrusive and probably my least favourite aspect of the film. It’s much less prominent and better integrated than in Phenomena, however.
So are there any other flaws? Well, I could never understand the complete lack of concern everyone shows at the death of the stagehand. But then this is Argento, and so it’s certainly not playing the plausible reality game – a certain suspension of disbelief is called for, but for the most part I personally find that absolutely effortless. A certain key piece of information about how a certain character is alive at the climax could be explained slightly better, perhaps. And the whodunit aspect is not too hard to work out, but then I feel it works better when you know the identity of the killer. It is also a film which perhaps works slightly better upon repeating viewing – I was slightly disappointed first time I saw it, whilst if you’re not an Argento fan, this won’t be the film to change your mind. But if you’re even vaguely taken with some of his films, then Opera is essential viewing. It’s a rich, beautiful, aggressive, and cruel film with breathtakingly outrageous conceits (the ravens), a genuine love-it-or-hate-it ending (I love it), and some of the most disturbing moments Argento has yet filmed. Pretty much everything that Argento tries comes off superbly, and the result is a true masterpiece of Italian horror, a film the director has not made the equal of since.
I’ve been watching the UK DVD from Arrow Films in conjunction with Cecchi Gori Home Video. Surprisingly, this has got through the BBFC entirely uncut, and despite the title this is the full-length version, not the shortened version released on UK VHS in 1991. I have to confess that I was sceptical as to how this release could better the Anchor Bay version, but truly they have done it. The anamorphic 2.35:1 picture quality is extremely good. A close comparison to the AB shows that this version is that bit richer, and with more vibrant colours. There are one or two of the darker shots that show a bit a grain, but the AB had this problem also and even they do look better on this release. Arrow’s big coup however, is with having the original Italian audio, so no longer do we have to put up with the rather poor dubbing (even though many actors seem to be speaking English on set). It’s a great 2.0 track, very crisp and clear - and unlike other companies they even include English subtitles (although the Italian subs listed on the back are not on the disc). There’s also the option of having the English audio, which is decent enough but not quite as good as the AB with a slight background hiss. It’s still more than listenable however, should you for whatever reason not want to watch in Italian.
For extras, you can have the menus in English or Italian, and there’s a small photo gallery, plus an Argento bio/filmo. It’s not quite as good as the AB in that respect, but it’s the film you’re paying for and there Arrow have the edge (note: my extras rating is based on having the choice of audio tracks as an extra!). I must just mention my one slight gripe with this release, and that’s to do with the subtitles. You see, there are subtle differences between the dialogue in the English and Italian tracks, and the subtitles are for the English track, rather than direct translations of the Italian. This means that what you read is not necessarily precisely what’s being said. For the most part this isn’t noticeable (and there aren’t all that many differences to be fair), but at two points the Italian has narration (read by Argento himself), whilst the English has a Betty voice-over. This gives a curious effect when watching in Italian with subs, but if you’re aware of it, it’s not too intrusive. It says something for Arrow’s achievement here that even with this minor gripe (and I’m really nitpicking!) this is still the best release of this film on DVD so far. The AB disc should only really be considered a companion piece for its extras – this version should now be the first choice for Argento fans. And I really can’t give a higher recommendation than that.