Directed by Dario Argento
Written by Dario Argento, Franco Ferrini
Starring Christina Marsillach, Urbano Barberini, Daria Nicolodi
Release Date December 19th, 1987
Published February 6th, 2024
The most captivating moment of the new Shudder documentary on director Dario Argento, called 'Panico,' comes during an interview with his former leading lady, Christina Marsillach. Marsillach starred in 1987's Opera for Argento and the two had a deeply fraught relationship. In her interview in Panico Marsillach starts out talking about Argento as a father figure before taking her reminiscence in a decidedly different direction. Slowly she begins to talk about Argento's passive aggressive style in which he would not give her direct instructions but would have other members of the crew speak to her.
Marsillach goes from painting a picture of a shy fatherly figure to portraying Argento like one of the villains of his movies, a tyrannical figure bent on getting his way at all costs. She appears to want to speak kindly of the director but then, in recalling her actual experience on the set of Opera, we get a short term psychodrama, a battle of wills between actress and director that she was not winning. It's captivating, there is no other way to describe it. I believe everything Marsillach is saying. She's not bitter toward Argento, she's genuinely traumatized by the memory and we are watching her grapple with that in her brief interview in Panico.
If only Opera were as compelling as this interview. Sadly, Opera is a wildly inconsistent piece of work. It's a slasher film set in the world of Opera with all of the pomp and circumstance of that world. The film stars Marsillach as a young diva who gets a shot at the big time after a big star walks out on an Avant-Garde take on Verdi's MacBeth. It's portrayed as a temper tantrum but it becomes quite serious when the Opera diva is struck by a car and is most assuredly not returning to the stage. Thus, a call is made to Betty (Marsillach), the diva understudy who now must step up and become a star.
Unfortunately for Betty, she happens to have a tragic backstory that she's not fully aware of. Years ago, her mother was murdered and the man who killed her, vanished. Now, that man is back and his particular psychopathic behavior involves capturing Betty and forcing her to watch as he kills someone else. This forcing Betty to watch includes the film's most compelling and memorable visual element. It's a torture device, a set of needles on a piece of tape that is stuck to Betty's face, just beneath her eyes. If she tries to close her eyes, the needles pierce her eyelids.
By Marsillach's account it took two hours to do the makeup for Opera and to place the needles so as not to actually hurt her. Argento mocked the time it took to prepare the torture device. He also mocked Marsillach's request not throw ravens at her. Part of the staging of Verdi's MacBeth in Opera, involves the use of real ravens that fly around out of control on the stage and around the famed concert hall. In one scene, Argento was off screen throwing the ravens toward his actress until she broke character and yelled at him. Argento stated that she needed to have actual fear on screen and throwing the ravens her direction was getting the effect he wanted from her performance.
The behind the scenes drama is, sadly, more compelling than the actual movie. Despite some strong visual elements, Opera lacks in pacing and drags toward an ending with a few twists too many. One twist in particular is jarring in its silliness. It's still a Dario Argento movie so elements are stronger than most other horror movies by lesser auteurs, but there is a reason why Opera is mostly remembered for eye torture. The film is shapeless and drawn out. Argento appears to spend more time on ravens than he did on making sure the movie moved at a brisk pace and wasn't overrun with needless twist endings.
Opera, along with Argento's feature debut, Bird with the Crystal Plumage, is the classic on the latest edition of the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast. Each week, my co-hosts Bob and Jeff and I discuss the newest movies in theaters and a classic that is vaguely related to the new movies of the week. This week, with the release of the documentary Panico on Shudder, a documentary about the life and career of Dario Argento, we're looking at Argento's career via two of his feature films that myself and Jeff wanted to see. You can hear us talk about Dario Argento on the next I Hate Critics Podcast, wherever you listen to podcasts.
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