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SAN SEBASTIÁN 2022 Competition

Review: Il Boemo

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- This jaunty biopic of Czech composer Josef Mysliveček, helmed by Petr Vaclav, is brimming with music and human instinct, but it could do with being a tad more edgy and mucky

Review: Il Boemo
Vojtěch Dyk in Il Boemo

The life of composer Josef Mysliveček was not just any old, humdrum life. Born in Prague in 1737, he moved as a young man to Venice in order to study violin, and that’s where Giuseppe “il Boemo” (literally “the Bohemian”) was born. It was a way for the Italians to circumnavigate his unpronounceable surname, and also to constantly remind him that he was a foreigner who needed to find his niche. It’s on this very musical note that we begin Il Boemo [+see also:
trailer
interview: Petr Vaclav
film profile
]
, the biopic directed by Czech helmer Petr Vaclav, which is competing for the Golden Shell at the 70th San Sebastián Film Festival, and which has already been chosen as the Czech hopeful in the Oscars race.

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Vaclav decides to portray Mysliveček’s quest in a very clear way. Using the tools of a bombastic period production, Il Boemo follows its main character as he infiltrates the upper echelons of the Italian opera scene. We get the sneaking suspicion that actor Vojtěch Dyk was chosen for the role because of his good looks and his demeanour (“Are you all so tall in your homeland?” he is asked by his apprentice and lover), and thanks to his career as a singer and frontman of various groups. Who better to breathe life into an 18th-century music star than a 21st-century music star? The storyline, centring on success through his flings with a number of women (the aristocrat who introduces him to the crème de la crème of debauchery, played by Elena Radonicich; the great soprano Caterina Gabrielli, played by Barbara Ronchi; or his last love, the wife of a possessive nobleman, played by Lana Vlady), is a way of digging down to the instincts that drive people, although a less masculine-centric method would have been welcome: one that would not perpetuate the cliché of women being naked and men being covered up with every layer of clothing imaginable.

Il Boemo has one virtue, in addition to giving music a leading role, with many of its shots glued to the singers’ throats: it probes human impulses, and shows that the opera house is a place where people have sex, eat, spit, defecate (in his curious encounter with the young King of Naples, played by Mirko Ciccariello), have anxiety attacks and attempt suicide after suffering heartbreak. Vaclav, who has made a name for himself with social cinema, one example being his challenging We Are Never Alone [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Petr Vaclav
film profile
]
, does not completely lose his penchant for muckiness or for getting his hands dirty, although here, he could easily have made it more apparent. In the end, during the film’s lengthy running time, it’s difficult to find a specific asset that would elevate the movie above the biopics of other people from that era (but of course, maybe that would be too much to ask, as the shadow of Milos Forman’s Amadeus looms large).

Mysliveček’s legacy has not been particularly notable over the years, and Vaclav decides to remedy this. At the end of the film, he reminds us just how relevant his creations were via the fact that Mozart used a couple of them for his work Ridente la calma. In fact, a young Mozart (played by Philip Amadeus Hahn) is the protagonist of one of the most memorable scenes in the movie. The life of Mysliveček did not end particularly happily, as he died disfigured by syphilis in 1781 in Rome, where he would cover his face with a mask, but one that was very different to the ones he used to wear during his bustling youth in Venice. It’s a mask not unlike the one used by the film itself, an elaborate showcase of a period piece that could nevertheless have taken it off a little more often in order to completely submerge itself in the muck.

Il Boemo is a production by Mimesis Film (Czech Republic), Dugong Films (Italy) and Sentimentalfilm (Slovakia). France’s Loco Films is selling the film overseas.

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(Translated from Spanish)

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