Fitzcarraldo (1982)
Directed by Werner Herzog

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * * ½

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In the first years of the Twentieth Century, Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski), a failed businessman and passionate lover of opera living in Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon, decides to build an opera house in that city. To pay for this enterprise, Fitzgerald, who is known to the locals as 'Fitzcarraldo,' concocts a scheme to start a rubber plantation in a distant region of the rain forest. Before he can do this, however, he must make an expedition on a steamship through the wilderness, which is inhabited by potentially hostile tribes.

Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo may not quite be a work of genius, but it is always very well made and often bewitching.

The story the director tells, that of one man's obsessive drive to bring an opera house to the isolated outpost where he lives, is genuinely fascinating, both in its broad outline and in its beautifully crafted individual scenes. The minutiae repeatedly conjure up the protagonist's rough, vibrant world and come together to make his story strangely epic. Herzog reveals, for example, the arrogance and crassness of the Iquitos' wealthy rubber barons by noting, in one scene, how they send their laundry to Europe because they think that the local water is impure, and, in others, by depicting one of these men repeatedly teasing and taunting the hero. Elsewhere, the director brings out Fitzgerald's love of opera by showing him hurriedly rowing down the length of the Amazon to attend a performance, audaciously regaling threatening Indians with a record of Enrico Caruso that he plays on a phonograph set atop the deck of his steamboat, and wildly ringing the bells of a local church to proclaim to all of Iquitos his intention to bless them with an opera house. The sum of all these details is a well realized portrait of a driven man surrounded by a plethora of obstacles.

Moreover, although there is a visual simplicity to Herzog's movie that may, at first, make that work seem pedestrian, as he watches it and discovers one lovely or captivating image after another being presented to him, the viewer is sure to be so entranced by these that he loses himself in the film. Fitzcarraldo allows the moviegoer to gaze upon the haphazard shanty towns of Iquitos, the dense forests of the Amazon Basin, and the slow movements of a steamboat making its way down a broad river. The restrained loveliness of these images is, however, often punctuated by other sequences that are remarkably dramatic. The sight of Fitzgerald's steamboat being hauled up a mountainside by an army of sweaty Indian is especially unforgettable.

Lastly, I must congratulate Kinski for his performance. The man has one of the most expressive faces I have ever seen, but, more than that, he brings such energy to his roles, including that of Fitzgerald, that he is intoxicating to watch. Most of the other performers in the film acquit themselves well, but they are all outshone by Kinski.

I am hesitant to claim that Fitzcarraldo is a masterpiece, but, at the very least, it does come close.

Review by Keith Allen

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