I, Don Giovanni

Starring: Lorenzo Balducci, Lino Guanciale, Emilia Verginelli, Ennio Fantastichini, Ketevan Kemoklidze, and Tobias Moretti. Directed by Carlos Saura.
Rated M (Sexual references, violence and nudity). 120 min.

This is a film adaptation of Mozart’s famous opera, not a film of the opera itself. It tells the background story of the creation of Mozart’s opera. There are selections from the opera in the film, but the focus is less on Mozart than on his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte (Lorenzo Balducci).  Originally a priest and with numerous sexual escapades behind him, Da Ponte was exiled from Venice to Vienna for behaving in a thoroughly dissolute way, including consorting with prostitutes. In exile, he was introduced to the King’s favourite composer, Salieri (Ennio Fantastichini) by his friend Giacomo Casanova (Tobias Moretti). It was in Vienna that Da Ponte met Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Lino Guanciale), who was a newcomer to the King’s court. Jealous of Mozart, and working to undermine him, Salieri asked the King to agree to Da Ponte working with Mozart as his librettist. The King consented, and Da Ponte’s life and libertine behaviour eventually inspired Mozart to create his famous opera. 

The film suggests that it was not Casanova, who personally influenced Mozart most in his characterisation of Don Giovanni, but Da Ponte. Da Ponte might have used his friend, Casanova, as a model for some of Don Giovanni’s worst behaviour, but his  love for a particular woman, Annetta (Emilia Verginelli), influenced many of the scenes in Mozart’s opera. After his immoral life, Da Ponte meets his past love, Annetta, again. She is Mozart’s pupil, and Da Ponte leaves the woman he is living with to win her back. With the connivance of Casanova and Da Ponte’s jealous ex-mistress, Adriana Ferrarese (Ketevan Kemoklidze), Annetta is told how many women Da Ponte has seduced in the past. Hearing the extent of his depravity, Annetta in disgust rejects Da Ponte, throws him out of her house, and severs all contact.  Lorenzo is devastated, but following the break-up, the creative bond between Mozart and Da Ponte becomes intense, and the support of each increasingly vital to the other.

In Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni, the young cavalier in constant search of adventures in love, was really Da Ponte. Donna Elvira, the noble lady, seduced and betrayed by Don Giovanni, was Annetta. The final scenes of Don Giovanni going unrepentant to hell, in the presence of the statue of Il Commendatore that he has invited to dinner, represent Da Ponte’s personal resolution of the commitment he has made to Annetta, who has returned to him. His love for Annetta carries obligations that compel him at long last to face his responsibilities. 

The film is beautifully shot through the camera work directed by Vittorio Storaro. It is sumptuously produced, and has some extraordinary costuming by Marina Roberti and Birgit Hutter. The story of the background to the opera picks up pace as the movie moves along, and later scenes that blend opera with real-life are dramatically very effective. The staging and singing of the Leporello’s famous Catalogue Aria from Act 1, Scene 5 of the opera,  and Don Giovanni’s deceitful plea to Zerlina, “La ci darem la mano”, from Act 1, Scene 9, are both highly effective dramatic re-enactments of Da Ponte’s inner turmoils.

The film shows how real-life conflicts inform and breathe life into what artists create.  Mozart owed much to the inner demons of Da Ponte, and his own conflicts cemented a relationship that produced a masterpiece. The film makes wonderful use of the art galleries and salons of Venice and Vienna. It is ravishing to look at, and like the opera itself, mixes comedy, melodrama and the supernatural. The extravagance of the costuming and the hair pieces distracts from the story and the music, and there is a curious use of fake, theatrical backdrops to real-life scenes, but the film is clever in concept and elegant in its realisation. It should appeal to more than just opera-lovers. 

Potential Films. Out May 6, 2010


Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

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