Somehow I didn’t get around to seeing Werner Herzog’s movie Fitzcaraldo, released in 1982, until now. I thought it was about a mad attempt to haul a steamboat over a small mountain. While moving the boat over the obstacle that separates one river from another is a central part of the story, the film is really about opera.
Everything Fitzcaraldo (real name Brian Fitzgerald which the locals find difficult to pronounce) does is to support his dream of building an opera house in Iquitos Peru which will be inaugurated by his hero Enrico Caruso. Fitzcaraldo lives for opera which is perfect because he is mad and opera is primarily a mad art which in turn makes it the greatest of art forms. It portrays people at the most intense moments of their lives when they are more than usually mad. Along the same vein the movie’s director is mad and its star Klaus Kinski is even madder.
The film starts with Fitzcaraldo and his mistress Molly (Claudia Cardinale looking beautiful but unrecognizable because of all the top of the line cosmetic surgery she’s had) arriving by boat at an Amazonian city. Molly runs a brothel; a profession which requires a similar skill set to that needed to run an opera house. They are paddling up to the Teatro Amazonas, which is 1000 miles up the Amazon from the Atlantic in Manaus Brazil, to hear a performance by Caruso. And they don’t even have a ticket. Fitz, which is what Molly calls him, pleads with an usher to be admitted recounting how he’s come 1000 miles from Peru to hear the great Neapolitan tenor. He’s allowed in just in time to hear the opera’s end.
Things get even madder in the opera house. It is, of course, redundant to say anything in an opera house is mad. Caruso is singing in the final trio at the end of Ernani’s third and last act. It’s the moment when he kills himself rather than consummate his marriage to the love of his life. First Caruso likely never sang in Manaus. Second Ernani was not in his repertoire. And finally Elvira is mimed by a man in drag and sung by a soprano in the orchestra pit. No explanation is offered for this unusual (even by the standards of opera in the jungle) arrangement.
Kisnki takes his primitive phonograph almost everywhere he goes and plays Caruso at any chance. He gets to go mad atop a church which gets him thrown in jail for a couple of days. Kinski was particularly good at going crazy. In fact he probably really was nuts. He plays Caruso at a reception which gets him thrown out. He plays Caruso to Indian children – they seem nonplussed. He plays Caruso from the steamer he takes up the Pachitea River. The tenor part of the quartet from Rigoletto calms the normally hostile Jivaro Indians in the region and prevents them from their usual practice of killing outsiders.
Fitzcaraldo’s plan is to move the boat from the Pachitea River to the Ucayali River at a point where they’re only 200 meters apart. (The geography is wrong but this has little to do with illusion and art.) This change of rivers will allow him to travel the Ucayali bypassing their deadly rapids and thus exploit a rubber plantation claim he’s made with the Peruvian government and get rich in the process which will then allow him to fund his opera house. He’ll have to carry the boat back across the heights but that’s for another day. The Indians agree to help him move the boat because they have a plan of their own.
After the Indians help him move the boat over the mountain (it’s really more a steep incline) they cut the boat loose with some of them still on it – to appease the evil spirits of the river. The steamer miraculously gets through the rapids of the Ucayali only to be back where it started from in Iquitos.
The Jivaros being uncivilized are the only sane people in the movie. They are concerned with painting their faces red, killing intruders, and shrinking heads. They have a rational goal and they achieve it. We can’t be sure they like Caruso.
There’s more Caruso singing as the boat spins out of control through the rapids. Back in Iquitos, Fitz sells the boat back to its original owner and with the resultant money, which is really Molly’s as she paid for the expedition, he brings a European opera company to town; they were on a gig at the Manaus house. They arrive playing and singing “A te o cara” from Bellini’s I Puritani. Fitz is jubilant and smokes a cigar and waves his hat. He’s at another opera whose heroine is again named Elvira who goes mad in the next act confirming her standing in Herzog’s masterpiece. Everybody in sight is happy, perhaps in anticipation of Elvira’s upcoming lunacy. Even Molly despite her financial hit is happy or insane if you prefer.
Fitz is the guardian of culture. He’s gotten no where and accomplished nothing and in doing so he (and the film) has achieved transcendance which is why he’s so triumphant at the end. Earlier he made a toast to “Verdi, Rossini, and Caruso.” The whole movie is a toast to them and their few peers.