They can’t all be winners.
Antonio Vivaldi: A Prince in Venice, in French with English subtitles, seems to be an experiment in making the least interesting storytelling choices possible. As such, it succeeds wildly.
Based on the life of the composer, the film is reverse alchemy, turning potential gold into lead. Vivaldi’s life seems at least as interesting as that of Mozart, who inspired the far more successful film Amadeus. But where artistic license must fill in the biographical gaps, writer and director Jean-Louis Guillermou chooses the least dramatic possibility every time.
Vivaldi was acknowledged as a musical genius in his lifetime (1678-1741), but constantly struggled to gain acceptance in Venice and with the church. Poor choices and bad luck contributed to his dying in poverty and obscurity. His works, including The Four Seasons, are now so renowned it’s hard to believe he remained largely forgotten until the early 20th century.
Known as the Red Priest, fiery-haired Vivaldi (Stefano Dionisi) was ordained but refused to practice mass. His claim that his health would not allow him to stand long enough for such duties leads to the Bishop of Venice’s observation that he doesn’t seem to have any difficulties when performing violin, or conducting his appallingly secular operas.
The Bishop, played by Michel Serrault, is a caricature, but at least instills some welcome comic relief to Dionisi’s staid and smug and unintentionally laughable Vivaldi. The composer’s reputation was tarnished in his home town of Venice because of his seeming to turn his back on his priestly duties, his foreign patrons, and his relationship with beautiful women, including his favourite singer Anna Giro (Annette Schreiber) and her sister. The movie is determined to exonerate Vivaldi from accusations he was unchaste, though he comes across less as naive or noble than manipulative and self-absorbed.
Though the action of the film takes place over a span of three decades, except for Vivladi’s hair getting progressively less red, the characters do not age, making the ups and downs of his career appear to take place over a disconcertingly short period of time.
The events compressed into this span are often disconnected, with no overall theme tying them together. Minor characters put a grinding halt to the action – to use too strong a word – by addressing the camera in order to cram even more tedious biographical detail into the movie. All characters are distinguished by stilted dialogue and acting. The one strength of the film is the undeniably sublime music, but even that is nearly ruined by wooden performances that don’t synch with the soundtrack.
Antonio Vivaldi: A Prince in Venice is not, however, simply an ineptly made film. It is very much deliberately stilted and disjointed, and some viewers may find that an interesting choice, but the only interest I could find in the stylized biopic was a fascination with how deliberately boring it was.