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Tremendous and Monumental
on July 8, 2003
I can safely say I have rarely seen anything approaching Werner Herzog's 1982 masterpiece "Fitzcarraldo." This opulent cinematic oeuvre about an obsessive man with a dream to build an opera house in the wilds of Peru often challenges modern American conceptions of filmmaking, namely MTV style editing and grating special effects. Clocking in at an expansive 2 1/2 hours, "Fitzcarraldo" requires patience and an appreciation for imaginative subtlety on the part of the viewer. The film certainly required patience on the part of Herzog and the cast: the movie took three years to make, and the original leads dropped out of the project (Jason Robards was one of them, who might have made an effective Fitzcarraldo when one thinks about it). One imagines hauling an enormous boat over a mountain in the Amazon had much to do with this long filming schedule. But why not use a real boat? A movie about obsession ought to indulge in it behind the scenes as well. "Fitzcarraldo" is an epic film about an epic idea. I cannot imagine any American director pulling this off even half as well.
Klaus Kinski plays Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, called Fitzcarraldo by the natives in his home base of Iquitos, Peru. Fitzcarraldo is one of those archetype figures present wherever big money rears its head, the eternal dreamer who cannot quite pull of an idea. In this case, the locale is the rich rubber producing regions in Peru and Brazil in the early part of the twentieth century. When Enrico Caruso performs in Manaus, yet another grand plan strikes Fitzcarraldo's fancy. He will build an opera house in Iquitos and have the famous Caruso perform on opening night. There is only one problem with this scheme: he isn't rich and must rely on wealthy rubber barons to foot the bill, which they are unwilling to do. A small scheme to produce ice for the local people goes nowhere, so Fitzcarraldo must secure other means to realize his dream. The answer, and for our hero there is always an answer somewhere, comes when he discovers an area of untapped rubber reserves along a river that just happens to house a tribe of dangerous Indians with a penchant for attacking outsiders. Fitzcarraldo borrows money from his girlfriend (played by the charming and beautiful Claudia Cardinale) and buys a boat from a rubber baron in order to launch an excursion. The fact that this boat must be hauled over a mountain in order to bypass a dangerous set of rapids means nothing to Fitzcarraldo. The opera house will exist no matter what the cost.
I think that gives you a good introduction to the film, and I don't really want to give away much about the river trip, the monumental task of moving the ship over the mountain, and the subsequent results of these adventures. I will say the conclusion of the film had me misty eyed with a dopey grin on my face, as Fitzcarraldo triumphs (but not in the way you might think) and therefore wins for all of those hopefuls whose dreams seem impossible. This movie is really quite affecting, with an ending I never saw coming in a million years. It is beautiful, as is the entire film. If you are in no way moved body and soul by "Fitzcarraldo," you have probably watched to many trite American films and sitcoms.
Every scene is pure eye candy. The lush atmosphere of the Amazon River basin provides the perfect backdrop for Fitzcarraldo's rambling quest. Herzog managed to hire two warring tribes of headhunters to serve as extras for the film, and these natives add an authenticity to the film in many ways. I loved the wildly expressive contortions of Kinski's hair, his coif often reflecting the inner emotions of this driven figure. Further scenes of note involve Fitzcarraldo sailing down the river blasting Enrico Caruso from a record player while he scans the riverbank with maniacal fervor, Caruso again blaring from the deck of the ship as it grinds up the side of the mountain, and Kinski banging a bell in church belfry while roaring about his opera house. I could list dozens of equally effective scenes. Herzog often lets his camera simply rest on the scenery or characters for minutes at a time, a form of cinematography that takes some getting used to in this day of fast edits and ten second commercials. I should make special mention of the soundtrack by Popol Vuh, a musical group Herzog used in several other films. Their talents lend incredible depth to "Fitzcarraldo" through vistas of sweeping arrangements that wonderfully match the expansive backdrop of the Amazon rain forests. All of these elements come together to make Herzog's film a majestic experience.
The DVD includes a trailer for the movie, text background on Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog, and a commentary by Herzog and producer Lucki Stipetic (who is apparently Werner's brother). While these extras seem rather thin for a classic of this magnitude you don't want a bunch of lesser trailers for other films, although the addition of some trailers from other Herzog films might have been nice.
"Fitzcarraldo" definitely inspires me to watch other Herzog films. Even if his other projects are only half as good as this one, they will be well worth the effort. Sometimes it is easy to get caught up in the nihilistic mind frame so common in today's films without realizing there are truly beautiful and inspiring works of art sitting on the shelf at the local video store. "Fitzcarraldo" is an affirmation of the beauty of running after a dream no matter what the cost.