A pivotal moment in Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni” is when sex fiend Giovanni’s servant tells one of his master’s conquests how many women he has had over the years. In Europe and Turkey, the total tops 3,000 and, upon hearing this, the girl swears vengeance.
“Don Giovanni” — Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s two-act work that premiered in Prague in 1787 — has all the hallmarks of a farcial comedy, but its undertones are brutal and dark.
For centuries critics have cited this as Mozart’s best and most ambitious opera, crammed with psychoanalytical insights and explorations of Giovanni’s sense of guilt, self-loathing — and a massive Oedipus complex. The tragic last act confronts the viewer not with the complexities of sexual love, but the dangerous repercussions of giving in to lust.
This “Io, Don Giovanni” (“I, Don Giovanni”), though, injects a dose of lightness into the somewhat heavy material, while paying reverent tribute to one of the most successful operas in history.
Focusing on the time period when the opera was created, and the people who surrounded the project, the film sheds particular light (albeit an overly romantic one) on the lyricist Lorenzo da Ponte, who collaborated closely with Mozart. Directed by Italy’s Carlos Saura, the story is almost an antithesis of Milos Forman’s 1975 landmark, “Amadeus,” which exuded pro-Austro-German sentiments, most notably in the way it contrasted Italian (“a lot of fat women screeching”) and (upright, sonorous) German opera, and the talents of Mozart vs. his rival composer Antonio Salieri.
In “Io, Don Giovanni,” it’s the Italians who steal the musical thunder from the Austro-German camp — and that’s where Ponte (Lorenzo Balducci) comes in. A political exile from the city-state of Venice, Ponte alights on the Viennese music scene with the casual charm and arrogance of a budding rock star. “Delighted to have you,” the king declares amiably, and Ponte retorts suavely that it’s “satisfying to be here.”
Before being ejected from Venetian high society on heresy charges (actually, he seduced one lovely lady too many), Ponte had been a celebrated poet and operatic lyricist — and a priest to boot. His speciality was tutoring young women on the finer points of Catholicism — and letting one thing lead to another (in the biblical sense).
The Catholic Inquisition then in full and murderous flow decreed, however, that punishment was in order and sentenced Ponte to 15 years of spiritual penance “outside the city of Venice!” This, of course, presented him with a fine opportunity to try out his talents in Vienna, where his compatriot Salieri (Ennio Fantastichini) was already ensconced in the top layer of that court’s musical hierarchy. “If Salieri could do it, so can I,” Ponte reasons, and as soon as he sets foot in Vienna he duly starts networking — and it’s not long before he turns up at Mozart’s house.
Saura depicts Mozart (Lino Guanciale) as an insecure and fragile prodigy, henpecked into submission by his demanding wife, Constanza (Francesca Inaudi), and — at the time he was working on “Don Giovanni” — nearly destitute and in poor health. In fact, as depicted here, what creative sparks the composer got at that time came from Ponte, who, it would have us believe, not only wrote the lyrics but helped with the music.
As well, we see Ponte encouraging Mozart by telling the story so all its twists and turns unfold before Mozart’s eyes — with the real-life Ponte doing double duty as Don Giovanni. Indeed, the poet-priest — whose Don Giovanni comes across as his own alter-ego — seems to be acting out excerpts from his own love life, and like the operatic Don he doesn’t let moral compunctions get in the way of his overwhelming urge to seduce every desirable woman under the sun.
In Ponte’s image, Giovanni never likes to waste time and always creeps up to a woman’s bedroom clad in nothing but trousers and a coat, even when snow is lying ankle-deep on the ground. The combination of the wintery setting and bare flesh enchants Mozart and inspires him to write a terrific opening. “Giovanni is a formidable fellow,” explains Ponte, and Mozart — mesmerized by this stunning blade’s words and beauty — nods happily.
“Io, Don Giovanni” is a multi-layered cinematic rose: a fictional “making of” story wrapped in a lyricist’s biographical confessions through which the actual opera peeks out.
Warm, luscious lighting offsets the sharp Rembrandt hues of 18th-century clothing, buildings and winding passages. The whole package is a resplendent treat for the senses — but it does not shrink from revealing the one-dimensional bluntness of the premise. It is, after all, about the lusty escapades of a man so rakishly handsome that women find it positively painful to resist him.
Ah well. We’ve had so many screen stories about sorry, ordinary blokes getting the girl(s), it’s refreshing to see a movie about a guy who’s a breathtaking, merciless, immoral cad. Some crimes have to be committed, at least some of the time.