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Monday, May 20, 2013


Natalie Dessay and Jean-François Sivadier
Courtesy of Distrib Films
Becoming Traviata
2013, 112 minutes
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler

Becoming Traviata is a piece of filmmaking so incompetent that it makes me scared that if this got picked up by some distributor, something else equally as bad will be picked up for distribution and then will potentially be viewed by me.  However, it is films like highlight one of the nastier perks of being a film critic.  As a general audience member, there is only so much impact that one's opinion can have.  However, as a film critic, if I hate a movie, I will write about it and people may trust it and stay far away from that film.  Being able to slam an obnoxiously horrible movie is a pure joy when something deserves to be slammed, and Becoming Traviata more than deserves it.

The film is a documentary about a group putting on Verdi's famous opera La Traviata for what I believe is an arts festival.  Are we given any context whatsoever as to what the opera is about or the backgrounds of who is performing?  Of course not!  Why would we ever deserve to know that?  In all seriousness, documentaries must provide a little context on their subject.  Becoming Traviata provides none and because of that, I felt lost and my interest in the film waned from the beginning.  After about 40 minutes of this nonsense, I was completely done.  After 112 minutes, I wanted to burn the DVD that I watched the film on.

Traviata is a horrid piece of filmmaking for so many reasons.  If there was a book written on how NOT to make a documentary, this would be a prime reference.  Aside from the zero context given, there was nothing for me to grasp on to, nothing to connect to and pull me into the film.  All the film consists of is rehearsals for the opera and some footage of the finished product.  That's about it.  I don't know about you, but I do not want to watch people rehearsing an opera for 112 minutes.  I really love going to the opera.  However, I don't want to see a film consisting solely of rehearsals of one.  The film could have been far more interesting if there were interviews with cast and crew members to give insight into the production, but alas, they are nonexistent.  In addition to the lack of insight and the tedious, repetitive nature of the film, there is random footage spliced in of a costume designer fixing or making a costume.  I was mad enough that the film was so stupefyingly boring by the point that this scene popped in.  If having this scene appear in the movie was supposed to provide an interesting break from the rehearsal footage, it failed.  I would have rather watched more rehearsal footage because at least it was consistent visually and tonally.  Intercutting a scene of a costume designer working was distracting in the worst possible way.

To add insult to injury, the film is poorly shot.  With a dynamic opera featuring as dynamic a star as Natalie Dessay, the cinematography should match.  During the sequences filmed when the show was actually being performed, the camera pans and then maybe zooms in slowly on something from afar.  The film is as well-shot as a parent videoing their child's band concert from the back row.  While I do not expect groundbreaking cinematography from a documentary, I do expect something slightly more interesting than what is given here.  (I realize the following example is a film from a master filmmaker with a bigger budget and venue but) Martin Scorsese's Shine a Light is a wonderful concert documentary that had superb cinematography...and was shot in IMAX which means a bigger, heavier, harder-to-move camera.  If Scorsese and his crew could pull off what they did in Shine a Light, surely director Philippe Béziat and crew could have pulled off something better and tried a bit harder to make this film look better than a bad videorecording.

The one good aspect of this film is the star Natalie Dessay, an acclaimed soprano with a stunning voice.  She is a star in every sense of the word and is magnetic when on screen.  In the sequences where she is simply allowed to perform without interruption (these are few), she is electrifying.  She radiates with energy and emotion, and that makes her riveting.  I would have loved to hear her insights on singing opera or the show in general.

Overall, Becoming Traviata is a messy documentary that is overlong, tedious, and poorly-made.  It does not even have an interesting ending.  It seems as if the filmmakers got lazy and just tacked on extra footage that they could call an ending.  I cannot recommend enough that everyone stay away from this movie.  If opera buffs are looking for a film with insights on the creative process or on opera, this is not the film.


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