About 20 minutes into the French-Italian melodrama Farinelli, a spoiled courtesan summons the greatest castrato singer of 18th century Europe, Farinelli (Stefano Dionisi), to a private meeting with her and dozens of tittering ladies fair.
All of them are astounded by the three-octave range of this slender, incendiary beauty who is also a freak--a man who is not quite a man. At the age of 10, Farinelli's testicles were cut off, a church-sanctioned mutilation that preserved his extraordinary talent into adulthood.
"You provided me with my first musical orgasm," the young woman declares.
When Farinelli continues to regard her with icy, amused arrogance, she angrily challenges the virtuoso's compromised sexual abilities: "What's the matter?" she hisses. "Can't you do it without him?"
The "him" to whom she refers is Riccardo (Enrico Lo Verso), Farinelli's swarthy older brother, and the man who writes most of his music. The pair of them made a pact that has become legendary all over Europe--Farinelli seduces the swooning female groupies with his angelic voice, and Riccardo finishes the job.
This is the burden borne by the singer throughout Farinelli, a bustling, wildly etched peek into the psyche of a man for whom sexual pleasure is an artistic ideal he can never reach. Revered by audiences wherever he performs, the heterosexual Farinelli can only achieve carnal satisfaction through Riccardo, a second-rate composer whose works have been tailored for the raw commercial hook of Farinelli's unnatural voice.
Director Gerard Corbiau (The Music Teacher) spares no sumptuous detail in rendering the vicious European classical cliques, but it's all in service to the saga of a tortured man who must navigate between fame and desire to achieve what he wants most: a respect forged from stigma. Corbiau and company conjure a throbbing romance-novel mood with an edge. When we aren't enchanted by the menu of beautiful faces that parade through this horny, semi-fictional bosom-heaver, we identify enough with the characters' individual dilemmas to stay enthralled as we wait for the next course of intrigue.
The first real conflict comes when a grim, snotty Handel (Jeroen Krabbe) invites Farinelli to London to audition for the renowned composer's opera house. But Handel screws up when he refuses to involve Riccardo in the bargain and displays contempt for Farinelli's success. The singer's violent response makes an enemy of the surly composer, who will have his revenge late in the film with the gleeful disclosure of a terrible secret.
Farinelli and Riccardo instead join a rival company overseen by the singer's childhood tutor Porpora (Omero Antonutti). It's a faded institution whose chief benefactress (Caroline Cellier) keeps her libidinous curiosities about the castrato tamed even while her niece Alexandra (Elsa Zylberstein) designates herself nurse-maid and number-one fan of the increasingly self-destructive Farinelli.
The constant change of moods and allegiances in Farinelli weaves a compelling web, a tangle of creative egos who want desperately to escape one another's influence but can't. Riccardo has been working for many years on an operatic version of the Orpheus myth, but his efforts have stalled because he's terrified he can never escape his brother's shadow; Handel finds he must commercialize his own compositions in order to stay competitive with Porpora's company when Farinelli is the star. And poor Farinelli, with only his vocal gifts to rescue him from the status of human oddity, begins to yearn for the artistic vitality Handel's work would offer, but can't bear to betray his hack brother.
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Sound like one of those TV Guide summaries of a week's worth of soap opera episodes? You bet, which is why Farinelli is so much fun to watch--the filmmakers know at the heart of opera's "elite" world burn the kind of petty grievances that beget really hot gossip.
The singer's performance scenes recall the wonderful stage sequences in Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron von Munchhausen--weirdly expressive in their cardboard crudeness. As Farinelli, Stefano Dionisi looks like the younger brother of Tom Cruise and Daniel Day-Lewis, which means he possesses a fey beauty perfectly suited to ghostly stage makeup and elaborate costumery.
His eerie voice, digitally morphed from a counter-tenor and a soprano, sails out of his swan-like throat with such lan we have no problem believing all those 18th century folks swoon at the sound of it. Surrender yourself to Farinelli, and you'll find plenty of opportunities for moviegoing mini-swoons.
Farinelli. Sony Pictures. Stefano Dionisi, Enrico Lo Verso, Elsa Zylberstein. Screenplay by Marcel Beaulieu and Andre and Gerard Corbiau. Directed by Gerard Corbiau. Now showing.