Opera: Limited Edition Review
Opera is regarded by many as the last great movie from Italian thriller director Dario Argento, and while this is not a comment I would necessarily agree with (I think that many of his subsequent productions have definitely had their merits, especially his 1996 effort, The Stendhal Syndrome), it is certainly easy to see why fans have latched on to it, with many proclaiming it to be the giallo maestro's greatest work. Opera is a delightfully sadistic and convoluted tale, and provided that you are able to suspend your belief for two hours and accept the various shortcomings that are common in all of Argento's films, it is an incredibly rewarding experience that stops just short of being a classic.
The lead singer in a production of Verdi's Macbeth is knocked down by a car, and the role is given to her young understudy, Betty (Cristina Marsillach). Directed by horror filmmaker Marco (played by the late Ian Charleson as a thinly veiled impersonation of Argento himself), she achieves massive success on her opening night, but soon finds herself pursued by a particularly sadistic maniac, a masked man who likes to tie her up and make her watch people close to her being murdered. By placing needles under her eyes, he forces her to see every gory detail of the deaths he is responsible for. As with every Argento thriller, there is a long line of suspects, all with possible connections and shifty behaviour. And of course, to complicate matters further, Betty remembers dreams from her childhood where she saw a similar masked murderer. It's all very confusing and, as usual, there's no way you can logically work out the identity of the assassin, so you simply have to sit back and enjoy the ride.
Acting is rarely Argento's primary focus, and this is not helped by the fact that almost all of his films are recorded in English but post-dubbed (some, such as Asia Argento and Julian Sands in The Phantom of the Opera, a couple of scenes in Suspiria, and Max Von Sydow's dialogue in Non Ho Sonno, have used the actual recorded dialogue), creating a rather wooden, "out of body" feel. All things considered, though, Cristina Marsillach works wonders as Betty. There are plenty of horror stories of her being impossible to work with and refusing to take direction from Argento, but she acquits herself quite well, giving a sympathetic and believable performance. There is an innocent beauty about her that makes the horrors she endures seem all the more appalling. In many ways she recalls Jessica Harper from Suspiria. Ian Charleson is superb as director Marco, giving a low-key performance that leaves you unsure of his intentions. Urbano Barlerini's Inspector Santini is bland and lifeless, but that criticism can be leveled against many of Argento's actors. Daria Nicolodi, Argento's ex-girlfriend, makes her last appearance in one of his movies, with a rather thankless and irrelevant role as Betty's friend Mira.
The real star, however, is Ronnie Taylor's outstanding photography. This was the first time that the English cinematographer worked with Argento (they collaborated again in The Phantom of the Opera and Non Ho Sonno), and the results are superb. Argento is notorious for pushing the envelope when it comes to photography, and Opera is no exception. The camera is frequently on the move, going to places you would never expect, with plenty of subjective shots shown from the view of not only the killer but also the crows that are part of the performance. The sweeping pans and flyarounds of the opera theatre are stunning and often leave you wondering just how they were achieved. Unlike the garish colours of Suspiria, Argento here uses a gritty and realistic colour palette with stark contrasts between light and dark. The look of the film is at times akin to what David Fincher is famous for in his thrillers. That said, he does at times throw in some fluorescent lighting and other interesting uses of colour, the stand-out being a moment when the entire screen is tinted green, when Betty hides from the killer in her apartment with Mira. Overall, though, Opera represented the beginnings of a move away from the stylised fantasy looks of Suspiria and Inferno and the futuristic unreality of Tenebre and a gradual adoption of a grittier, realistic look and feel.
Equally unique is the music, and as usual, it's the kind of material you will either love or loathe. As with Phenomena, Argento worked with a number of different composers and groups, including Brian Eno, Bill Wyman and long-term collaborator Claudio Simonetti (one of the people behind alternative rock group Goblin, who provided the weird and wonderful sounds of Suspiria, Profondo Rosso, Tenebre and Non Ho Sonno). This results in a multitude of different styles, with opera music contrasting with creepy electronic synthesizers and heavy metal. Yes, heavy metal. It really is a matter of personal preference whether or not you can accept it suddenly leaping into action during the murder sequences. Personally, I think it works well, but it is definitely at odds with the visuals and I can see why other people hate it. One thing's for sure, the inclusion of the soundtrack CD was a great idea, as it lets you appreciate the vastly varying score on its own.
Something that has always bothered me has been the accusations of misogyny leveled against Argento. In my opinion they are completely unfair and are the kneejerk reactions of people who dedicate their lives to finding ways to criticise the makers of violent films. For these indictments to have any credibility, Argento would have to be specifically singling out women, and would also have to be condoning the violence he depicts. Anyone who has any knowledge of his films will know that this is not the case. Both women and men are brutally murdered in his films, and although his murders are creative and visually interesting it seems ludicrous to claim that he is condoning the violence. If anything, Argento's work seems more feminist than misogynistic, as his protagonists and characters of power are frequently women. In Opera, the killer forcing Betty to watch his murderous actions seems to be an analogy to the act of rape. Argento has often said that he sees a strong connection between sex and murder (both involve acts of penetration), and this motif comes across very strongly in Opera, moreso even than the decidedly feminist The Stendhal Syndrome (which featured his daughter Asia Argento as a rape victim). Certainly Betty's reactions to the horrors she is forced to watch seem to be very similar to those of a rape victim. She comes across as distant and ashamed, and is reluctant to talk about it, especially to the police. It is interesting that the killer frequently calls her a "whore", and that two different people tell her about the myth that opera singers make love before performing to improve their voices: in a way this is an analogy to the common myth that rape victims are somehow "asking for it".
It is true that Opera is a remarkably brutal film, even for Argento. He shows us the things that most other directors, including the strongest gore aficionados, would cut away from, a perfect example being a scene where a character is stabbed in the jaw. Not content to show the knife going through flesh, Argento provides a close-up of the blade going straight through the victim's jaw and out through his mouth. Quite apart from the squeamishness of having to witness a woman with needles placed under her eyes (something which Argento created as a deliberate nod to the fact that he wanted audiences to be in the same position as Betty: unable to shut their eyes to the violence going on in front of them), there are violent stabbings, eye gougings and beatings a-plenty. The most memorable of these is the death of Daria Nicolodi's character (it's not too big a spoiler to reveal that she is killed, honestly), which features a bullet travelling through a peephole and through her eye in slow motion. This moment has to be seen to be believed, and it is up there with the beheading in The Omen and the impalement of Margaret White in Carrie in terms of great cinematic deaths.
As stated previously, all the usual criticisms that you can level against Argento's films are on full display here, but as usual they can be forgiven simply because of the sheer mastery of cinematography and cinematic violence on display. Much of the acting is clumsy, the plot is full of inconsistencies and odd behaviour, and it is full of quirks and seemingly pointless characters. While probably quite off-putting for newcomers, those who have seen Argento films before will know what to expect. Argento does not make films in the typical Hollywood vein: he is far more interested in subtext, look and tension than realism, character development and dialogue. This brings us naturally on to the film's conclusion. I don't want to reveal any details about the conclusion, so I'll just say that it is quite bizarre and contradictory to the mood and style of the rest of the film, and has been the subject of a huge amount of criticism. In fact, when Orion Pictures released the film in the US (butchered and under the title "Terror at the Opera"), they omitted the ending completely. While lengths such as these are a little extreme, it is undeniable that the ending doesn't quite work and is more weird than satisfying.
That said, Opera is a little less bizarre than some of Argento's other films, so if you haven't yet seen any of the master of terror's work yet, this might be as good a place as any to start. While not quite on the same level as the superb Suspiria, it is one of Argento's best efforts - in my opinion his strongest "pure" thriller - and well worth watching.
Presented anamorphically in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, this transfer of Opera was mastered from the original negative (just as Anchor Bay did with their releases of Profondo Rosso and Suspiria).
The results are overall excellent. While Opera is not as colourful a film as Suspiria, it looks almost as stunning. The image quality is very sharp indeed - perhaps not the most detail I have ever seen, but still better than many transfers I have seen of modern day films. There is a hint of edge enhancement, but it is not overly troubling. The contrast levels are excellent, and the print is generally in excellent shape. Anchor Bay have wisely left the image largely unfiltered, resulting in a rich, film-like look.
An average bit rate of 6.90 Mbps is used, and although there are some mild compression artifacts here and there (most noticeable in the form of mosquito noise around the opening credits' text), they are never distracting.
Three audio tracks are featured, including the original 2.0 mix with surround encoding, and new Dolby Digital 5.1 EX and DTS-ES 6.1 tracks.
The audio is, in a word, great. The dialogue is always clear, if at times ever so slightly scratchy, and the music and sounds of crows flapping their wings give the surrounds a hefty work-out. Both the Dolby 5.1 and DTS mixes are excellent, with the DTS track having a slight lead in terms of bass and channel separation.
There are no subtitles at all. This is typical of Anchor Bay, and in my opinion is inexcusable. Their old argument of "Who needs subtitles when English audio is provided?" is simply not enough, given the number of deaf and hard of hearing people there are. (Closed captions are provided, but they will only be of use to American viewers.)
The menus are nicely designed and easy to navigate with atmospheric music from the film. The menu transitions are actually pretty fun, with "slashing" animation.
Opera comes in a double-thickness dual alpha case. Wisely, Anchor Bay have used the original theatrical poster artwork for the packaging, unlike their release of Profondo Rosso, which used a bizarrely chosen piece of artwork which completely misrepresented the movie.
Also included is a four-page booklet featuring chapter listings and a short essay by Michael Felsher.
Anchor Bay's special edition releases of Argento's films have tended to stress quality over quantity, and this is no exception. Sadly, after Tenebre and Phenomena Argento declined to record any further audio commentaries for his films, so instead we have to make do with...
Conducting Dario Argento's Opera - This is a truly fantastic 36-minute look at the production of the film, beginning with Argento explaining his love of opera and his desire to direct one. Instead, he chose to make a film that used opera as a backdrop. Contributors include (of course) Argento, cinematographer Ronnie Taylor, actors Urbano Barberini and Daria Nicolodi (Nicolodi is her usual smarmy and obnoxious self), anamatronics designer Sergio Stivaletti and composer Claudio Simonetti. All except Barberini and Taylor speak in Italian with subtitles. This is an incredibly in-depth documentary and one that is well worth watching, although you should definitely avoid it until you have watched the film itself, as it makes no bones about giving away spoilers.
Trailers - An international trailer and a US trailer for the butchered "Terror at the Opera" are included.
Daemonia music video - A bizarre and creepy little music video by Claudio Simonetti's band, Daemonia.
Dario Argento bio - A nicely-written 25-page biography of Argento, ending with a filmography. This also appears on the Suspiria DVD.
Also included in the limited edition is the soundtrack CD. This is the only thing that separates the limited edition from the standard single-disc release.
Opera, like all of Dario Argento's films, is a bit of an acquired taste, but if you can look beyond its peculiarities, it is a wonderfully engaging thriller with a unique and often unsettling style. Its audio-visual presentation do it justice, and it is accompanied by a nice in-depth documentary. If you haven't seen any of Argento's films yet, why not start here?