To the general public, opera is probably regarded as a moribund art-form, constantly recycling a standard repertoire of ancient pieces of stagily performed classical music, but while there certainly is a strong and necessarily conservative element to touring productions that have to rely on familiar Verdi, Mozart and Puccini titles to draw in sufficient audiences, in many ways, opera’s highly interpretative nature makes it is one of the most inventive and disciplined of the performing arts. The collaborative nature of the art-form, where every element of the music, drama, stage lighting, set design, costume design, classical music, performance and singing (all of an incredibly high standard) needs to be harnessed towards a particular vision or interpretation, opera would appear to have much in common with filmmaking. There have certainly been a number of filmed interpretations of opera – as opposed to merely filming stage productions – and they have been very successful, but the combination of opera and film is not commonplace. Rarer still are original modern operas made as films. When even film musicals are out of cinematic fashion, it’s a brave director and producer then who will embark on such an enterprise that is unlikely to find an eager and receptive audience.
The consideration of why anyone would make an opera as a film, or a film as an opera, is the first thing that strikes you when you watch the opening minutes of Kornél Mundruczó Hungarian film-opera Johanna. Mass appeal and commercial success clearly wasn’t in mind, so evidently the filmmaker believes that making his film as an opera will bring out other elements that a more traditional cinematic approach won’t. Happily, to some extent at least, Johanna does succeed in bringing something new to the cinema screen. Shot entirely in the dark, yellow-green lit confines of an old hospital and its dank basements where a struggle develops between powers of good and evil, there’s a sense of Lars Von Trier’s The Kingdom about the story, or following the recent trend towards making TV operas based on popular reality-TV shows, it may seem like a case of Riget: The Opera, directed with the earthiness of fellow Hungarian Béla Tarr (who is actually producer here, though at under an hour and a half, it’s certainly not paced like a Tarr film). There is however rather more to Johanna than that.
The Johanna of the title, played compellingly by Orsolya Tóth, is a young woman, a drug addict living on the streets who, after taking part in an emergency drill at the hospital, takes advantage of the situation to score some morphine from the medical store. The dose she takes however is too heavy or too pure and it almost kills her. In fact, she may even have died for a while on the operating table, but she is revived by one of the doctors. The doctor, who is attracted to this young, wild woman, gives her a chance to work at the hospital as a nurse, and Johanna is reborn. Her approach to healing her patients by having sex with them is somewhat unconventional however, but while the hospital staff have suspicions of her inappropriate behaviour and evidently disapprove, her method as a kind of holy whore seems to have a miraculous affect on the patients themselves. But is what Johanna is doing an act of self-sacrifice and healing, or is it a case of abuse and self-deception?
Where Johanna is most successful is that it has an interesting story to consider – one that isn’t too complex, but has different levels and clear references to Joan of Arc. With its apparent supernatural element of a person who comes back from the dead with the power to heal, it considers the distinction between acts of good and evil. The hospital setting of white-coated doctors on one side working in favour of rationality and the ordinary common people on the other with their beliefs and superstitions, helps draw the distinction, as does the high contrast cinematography which emphasises the black and white divisions. An already blurred distinction about the morality of Johanna’s actions is further complicated by the personal motivations of the characters, particularly the doctor who has taken her on, which are less than rational and not so motivated by noble causes.
Even so, there are no levels of nuance and meaning here that conventionally made cinema can’t bring out in a traditional narrative manner with a regular music score. Having the characters sing their parts operatically, with choruses of patients and doctors backing up their own sides in the power struggle, does however bring a certain dramatic quality that is wholly appropriate for the subject matter, one that takes the artificiality of a traditional music score and makes it integral to the piece. In which case the inevitable question is why not just make Johanna a stage opera then instead of a film? Well, the additional element of the film camera is also brought into the equation here, and it works with the pace of the music and the tone of the subject. Flowing steadicams glide down dark corridors and spin around gathered groups of people, the whole enterprise works as a single unit, no element feeling forced, artificial or out of place. As a concept and in its execution then, Johanna really can’t be faulted, but when it comes to evaluation of its artistic merit, that’s another matter entirely.
As someone who even finds it hard to handle the concept of an opera with a Western setting from Puccini (La Fanciulla Del West), a modern one set in a hospital comes with its own incongruities, throwing up curiosities in the libretto such as rampaging patients singing “Lets run to the Urology Department!”. Although Hungarian is certainly not a standard operatic language – I’ve personally never heard a Hungarian opera and only know of one (Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle) – the singing is strong and it sounds marvellous, having to my ear the same rounded East European guttural qualities and expressive strengths of Janácek, while any modern Hungarian classical piece is inevitably going to find it difficult to avoid being compared to and judged against Bartók’s compositions with its folk roots. At best however, Zsófia Tallér’s score accompanies the emotions and action rather than heightening it or lending it any otherwise inexpressible qualities. This would almost defeat the purpose of making the film as an opera, but it’s a bold experiment, a commercially suicidal one, and the very taking on of the challenge alone, to say nothing of the brilliance of the actual execution, makes Johanna a fascinating experience.
Johanna is released in the UK by Tartan. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.
The visual look of Johanna is heavily stylised with high contrast, visible grain, and colour tones of rich sepia and yellow-green. It may consequently look rather grungy in places, particularly as a great deal of the film takes place in darkened rooms and basements, but Tartan’s transfer would seem to handle this to perfection. The image is clear, sharp and shows excellent detail, the colours glowing off the screen. The transfer is also perfectly stable and, generously placing the 83 minute film with no real extra features on a dual-layer disc, there is no problem with digital artefacts or macro-blocking. With the constant darkness, you may see the odd white dust-spot, but even they are very rare indeed. Just how well this high-contrast image represents the intended look of the film I couldn’t say, but it looks simply marvellous here.
The original soundtrack for the film would appear to be DTS Stereo, judging by the end credits. Tartan don’t have this, but they do include a choice of Dolby Digital 2.0, Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 mixes. They are all quite strong and there wouldn’t appear to be much between them, so you can choose whichever you prefer. The surround mixes – or remixes - don’t mess around with the sound design too much and keeps the principal sound centre and front. The clarity and definition is as good as you could wish for, with an appropriate tone to the orchestration and sharp, ringing percussive sounds. Singing voices are also robust, only tending to crackle faintly at the loudest deliveries.
English subtitles are optional. The white font is clearly readable throughout and the translation reads well.
The only extra feature is the Trailer (1:26) for the film, which is more of a teaser – quite literally considering the nature of the content.
I haven’t seen a particularly large amount of Hungarian films, but if those recent films that are making their way across into the international market are anything to go by – Werckmeister Harmonies, Hukkle, Kontroll and now Johanna - then the country would seem to be producing some of the most unique, interesting and risk-taking films in world cinema at the moment. Like those films however, Johanna doesn’t quite pull-off its conceit as an original film-opera, but there is much to admire here nonetheless. Tartan’s DVD presentation of the film is superb – it would be hard to imagine that the audio-visual aspect of the transfer could be improved – but a few more extras in the way of interviews to explain the intentions of the creators would have been useful here.