Petr Vaclav • Director of Il Boemo
“This Icarian story of a rise and fall excited me”
- Cineuropa talked to the Czech director about his biggest film to date and about the origins of this period drama that resurrects music that has not been heard for 250 years
Czech filmmaker Petr Vaclav returns to the San Sebastián International Film Festival, where he revealed his sophomore feature, Parallel Worlds, back in 2001. Vaclav is there to unveil his latest effort, Il Boemo [+see also:
interview: Petr Vaclav
film profile], about forgotten Baroque composer Josef Mysliveček, in the festival’s main competition. Il Boemo is Vaclav’s biggest and most ambitious film to date, and Cineuropa sat down with him to talk about the origins of the project, shooting a period drama and resurrecting music that has not been heard for 250 years.
Il Boemo has also been submitted as the Czech Republic’s submission for the Academy Awards in the Best International Feature Film category.
Cineuropa: You have been working on this project about Josef Mysliveček for almost a decade. Why did you decide to devote so much energy to a biopic drama about a composer who has almost disappeared from the history books?
Petr Vaclav: I was drawn to Josef Mysliveček precisely because he is forgotten and unknown. His life story is extremely engaging. Josef wants to become a music and opera composer. In order to fulfil his ambitions, he has to leave his family and his country, and move to the centre of the music scene, to Italy. He will forge a career and live the life of an in-demand composer, which he has been longing for. Nevertheless, his unfortunate fate will soon rob him of his success. Josef knows that his career and life won't last that long, yet he still writes the most beautiful music.
This Icarian story of a rise and fall excited me, as did the aesthetics and the spirit of the era, the costumes, the furniture and the candles. And of course, I wanted to bring this great composer's music to life again. I wasn't attempting to create a generic-looking “biopic” fresco. Il Boemo is more of an intimate film and operates with themes that are close to me. Despite Josef's tragic death, the film is not a tragedy. During the 15 years of his career, Mysliveček wrote a lot of beautiful music that speaks to us even now, after 250 years. He is one of the lucky few who left a lasting legacy.
It was not exactly a decade spent working. There has been too much waiting and rejection, and there were several “clinical deaths” for the project. Between the moment the script was finished and the point at which we started preparing, six years passed. Nevertheless, in that period, I wrote and shot three feature-length fiction films and one feature-length documentary. Research for the script for Il Boemo, which preceded the editing of the script, took me a year and a half of very intensive work. It was a beautiful adventure during which I learned a lot, read a lot, met various fantastic and erudite experts, and acquired knowledge that I did not have before.
The finished documentary you mention is Confession of the Vanished [+see also:
film profile], also about Josef Mysliveček. What influence did this documentary have on Il Boemo?
It was essential. It’s a documentary portrait of Josef Mysliveček. The shooting was divided into two phases. I shot the main part in the Prague rehearsal rooms, where Vaclav Luks rehearsed the captivating opera L'Olimpiade for many long weeks. Mysliveček had written the opera already at a time when he was disfigured, lived hidden behind a mask, and had to endure a very difficult period. Living for weeks and months in that music allowed me to understand how strong a character Mysliveček must have had.
The second phase of shooting took place in Italy, where I shot places that Mysliveček would have passed through, partly by myself and mainly with producer Jana Macola. It was very important as preparation for Il Boemo, and at the same time, the film that came out of it is not an “aside”, but rather a documentary feature made with absolute documentary deontology.
Il Boemo is a significant departure from your previous films, which were mostly social dramas.
I have to admit that I don't notice any change. I prepared a lot, and I studied the era, its spirit, its aesthetics, its thinking and its music. However, I would say that Il Boemo is a perfectly coherent move and remains in my “territory”. In my previous films, I have always focused on the fate of people who are trying to gain freedom, to give meaning to their lives. It is always the story of an individual who starts with a handicap and who attempts to overcome it.
In terms of direction, it was also not a fundamental change, even though the budget we had seems high for the Czech Republic, on paper. A historical film is such an expensive affair that our budget was actually modest, and I was in a much more uncertain situation than in my previous films. We had to make every cent count.
As for the working method, I feel that I follow similar procedures over and over again. When I shot films with Roma non-professional actors, I totally immersed myself in their environment. I spent time with them, I went to their houses and their parties, and I drank with some of them at night. I went shopping with them, went to the doctor and went to social services. While working on Il Boemo, I immersed myself in books, and in the study of the 18th century and the Italian language.
Music plays a very important role, and for the film, you and your collaborators rediscovered works that had not been performed for almost 250 years. Can you describe the process of resurrecting the works of Josef Mysliveček?
When I started thinking about Mysliveček, only three of his operas existed in recorded form. However, he wrote these arias for the greatest castrati, tenors and sopranos of his time. This means that his music cannot be performed without the best voices of our time. Castrato and coloratura parts remain extremely difficult, even for today's female singers and countertenors. But at that time, I knew little about opera, and that's why I was afraid that Mysliveček was a bad composer.
Vaclav Luks, one of the greatest contemporary conductors of Baroque music, who was my advisor from the beginning, reassured me. He talked to me about Mysliveček, played me three operas on the piano and sang, while showing me Mysliveček's strong dramaturgical talent with individual examples, as well as his sense of the plot and the content of the libretto. His ability to express the souls and conflicts of the characters was incredible.
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