Sounds good, lacks balls

Adam Mars-Jones finds a film about an 18th-century castrato painful to watch - for all the wrong reasons: FARINELLI; Gerard Corbiau (15)
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The Independent Culture
It's courtesy, when reviewing a film about a castrato, to indicate for the benefit of male readers whether the defining event in a castrato's life is passed over quickly or dwelt on, whether it's dealt with in chronological order or held in reserve as an atrocity flashback, waiting to traumatise you. The answers in the case of Gerard Corbiau's Farinelli are that yes, the event is replayed in flashback, but without explicitness. No sharp instruments are on show. If you can cope with the sight of an unconscious boy lying in a barrel of milk, with a faint welling of blood beneath the surface, you won't embarrass your friend by fainting. You can cope with Farinelli.

On the other hand, why bother? Farinelli is a farrago, lavish without being stylish, emotionally overblown but curiously lacking in impact. The screenplay is forever setting up wild coincidences and symbolic incidents, but falls down badly when it comes to telling a comprehensible story. For instance: young Carlo Broschi, strolling through Naples with his brother Riccardo, shows off his eerie vocal skills in a musical duel with a trumpeter. Meanwhile, someone is listening from inside a carriage, someone who holds a stick with a handle in the shape of a horse's head. A man in the crowd says Carlo has "farinato" the trumpeter, ground him to powder, as grain is milled to flour (farina). Someone else asks the young man his name, and on the spur of the moment he answers Farinelli. Never mind that, in fact, he was the protege of the brothers Farina in Naples. This is history, but not as we know it.

The important thing for the screenwriters (Corbiau and his wife Andree) is that Carlo should assume his professional name at the same time as he first encounters the man in the carriage, who will become his most bitter musical adversary. The man with the horse's head handle is in fact Handel (Jeroen Krabbe), who needs Farinelli's voice to sing his music just as much as Farinelli needs better music to perform than the empty bravura vocal writing his brother turns out. Yet these two halves of a musical whole, mutually attracted and repulsed, never worked together.

The significance of the horse's head is that Carlo is haunted by nightmares of endlessly riding a white horse. And the significance of that, not that the screenwriters bother to tell us, is that Carlo has been told that it was as a result of a riding accident that the family jewels vanished from his sporran. The dream of riding a horse and never falling off is his subconscious's way of telling him, in the infinitely resourceful language of dreams, that he never fell off a horse. Someone has been telling him porky pies, perhaps the same person who has, since that very day, been trying to compose an opera called Orpheus (a God associated with mutilation as well as music), to make reparation to his poor sacrificed brother.

There's quite a lot of "since that very day" in Farinelli. On their first meeting, for instance, Handel wanted to separate the brothers. Carlo refused, Handel insulted him, Carlo spat in his face. Since that very day, Handel confesses later, his imagination has been castrated. Later, when a proposed meeting with Handel is called off, Carlo mysteriously loses his voice. In fact, there's symbolic inadequacy as far as the eye can see. Handel's imagination fails him, Riccardo has composer's block, and Carlo has, well, castrato's block, since he can pleasure women and himself but not father a child.

It's made clear, very early in the film, that a castrato is virile. Women swoon, and Farinelli responds to their adulation by throwing his scarf into the crowd, like Agassi with his sweaty shirt or Sir Cliff Richard with his tailcoat. (For someone with equine phobia, Farinelli has an odd fondness for plumed head-dresses that make him look like a circus horse.) Backstage, he is potent, though he has a pact with his brother that they will always share the groupies.

Farinelli is a rather tortuous drama about damage, wholeness and creativity. Carlo's first attempt at wholeness is with his brother. No woman must divide them. Then Handel seems to offer a musical wholeness, but at a price - the abandonment of his brother - that he isn't willing to pay. By the time he reconsiders, Handel has become embittered by the gelding of his imagination.

In London, Farinelli forms a bond with Benedict Hunter, a boy who is likewise damaged (by a spinal condition). He makes a bid for family wholeness by proposing to Benedict's mother. She refuses him. Or to be exact, he says: "Because I often play God on stage, I dared to think I could be a man." And she says: "To protect my love, I must crush my feelings."

Only at the end of the film does Carlo symbolically overcome his castrato's block. But along the way we have a lot of shouting and brooding, numerous scenes of castrati hiding in churches to eavesdrop on great composers playing the organ, failed composers hiding in the attics of great composers to steal their inspiration, failed composers and great composers bumping into each other in the flies of opera houses as they eavesdrop on castrati of genius. In the climactic scene, Farinelli, singing Handel's music on stage, seems to give the composer a sort of seizure by sheer castrato voodoo, turning his voice into an instrument of death, as he once threatened. Handel survives by sheer luck and lives another 20 years.

Farinelli is undoubtedly a film for the ears rather than the eyes or brain. The gimmick of its soundtrack is that two voices (Derek Lee Ragin, counter-tenor, and Ewa Mallas Godlewska) have been digitally combined to approximate a castrato's timbre and range. The result is highly plausible and slightly disappointing, less unearthly than a counter-tenor's alone. We start the film thinking we are in for a revelation, but end up taking the miracle for granted, treating it as just another voice. Perhaps we are more fickle than 18th-century audiences, or perhaps we've been numbed by the film's unremitting soap opera, numbed to the real thing.

n Opens tomorrow