Four centuries before Lorena Bobbitt fetched her paring knife from the kitchen drawer, the Italians began carving up assorted choirboys in the name of Art. Whether we like it or not, Gerard Corbiau's Farinelli now tells the bittersweet tale of one Carlo Broschi, supposedly the most renowned of Italy's castrati. If we can believe half of what we see here, he was not only a singer in command of three and a half octaves, but also what used to be called an opium fiend, and the kind of androgynous public icon from whom Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson and Prince descended.
In fact, the real theme of these two hours is not (as the filmmakers loftily assert) the sundry powers of the human voice. It is the timeless magnetism of the bizarre. Eighteenth-century female groupies swoon over Carlo Broschi--nicknamed "Farinelli" for the time he reduced a competing trumpeter "to farina"--because he has heavenly vocal chords. But the carnal fantasies this mutilated manchild provokes are even stronger. In fact, historians tell us that the music itself was largely second-rate. When a handful of Baroque composers finally got around to writing specifically for the castrati, the form called opera seria showcased their flash and virtuosity, but they never attained real operatic eminence. Put another way, the castrati's domain was not the Met but the MGM Grand.
Like all classical-music biopics, however, this one is stuffed with temper tantrums, sibling rivalries, artistic feuds and dark secrets. It wouldn't serve any purpose to detail many of those here, except to say that Carlo's big brother Riccardo, an ambitious yet mediocre composer, had good reason to feel guilty about poor Carlo's psychological burdens. And that the most interesting element in this bawdy, overblown costume epic is a tug-of-war between the self-absorbed Neapolitan Farinelli and the conniving, imperious composer Georg Friedrich Handel (Jeroen Krabbe). In the film's main action, these two are competing for audiences in London and relentlessly sniping at each other.
However, Corbiau's aesthetic concerns always seem to be outweighed by his taste for prurient appeal. The Broschi brothers--one half-staffed, the other half-witted--join forces not only in the concert hall but in a series of menages a trois that might turn today's sullen rockers green with envy. From Dresden to Madrid to London, our touring superstars bed every maiden in sight--acting as a kind of sexual tag team due to the hero's delicate condition--and generally enlivening a generally tedious movie with occasional soft-porn sensation.
Indeed, the two glumly handsome Italian boys cast here as Carlo and Riccardo--Stefano Dionisi and Enrico Lo Verso--seem to have their only fun when disrobing and disturbing this groupie or that. The longest-lived of them is the aristocratic Londoner Alexandra (Elsa Zylberstein), upon whom the Broschi boys perform their most fruitful collaboration of all.
Corbiau (who wrote the screenplay with his wife, Andree) confuses his narrative with muddy editing and a dizzying series of flash-forwards and -backs that often leave us in the dark as to time, place, event, character and motivation. Nonetheless, he would have us take his film as an examination of Baroque Italy's narcissistic barbarism, or the price an artist pays for art, or a distant mirror of the celebrity-obsessed culture of our own time. Evidently, many think he's turned the trick: Farinelli won a Golden Globe Award and was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar this year.
But there's something empty and supercilious at the heart of this enterprise, something essentially manipulative. That might even be symbolized in the method by which these moviemakers contrived Farinelli's singing voice--"digitally fusing" the separate voices of a male American countertenor, Derek Lee Ragin, and a female Polish soprano, Ewa Mallas Godlewska. The result is less transcendent than synthetic: This guy sounds like he was manufactured in a lab in 1994.
At last, let us take note that Farinelli, whatever else it may be or not be, is a cautionary tale. The "golden age of the castrati," as the movie's press notes so elegantly put it, lasted from the beginning of the seventeenth to the end of the eighteenth century--a time when avaricious backstage families sold their sons off to music masters who had little compunction about administering the fateful snip and even less about relegating the snip-ees to the junk heap when they failed as musical prodigies. The last of these unfortunates, you may be surprised to learn, didn't die until 1922.