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The Mystery of Oberwald

     Anybody out there at the 1980 Venice Film Festival? If so, you were among the disappointed when the great Italian filmmaker, Michelangelo Antonioni (L'aventura, Red Desert, Blow Up), unveiled The Mystery of Oberwald, a stage-to-screen rendition of a tediously talky Jean Cocteau chamber play, The Eagle Has Two Heads. Why would anyone wish to revive that dusty 19th costume drama from 1946 about a reclusive queen, a castle shut-in the ten years since her husband's death, who falls for an anarchist poet (Franco Branciaroli) sent to assassinate her? And why (this was 1980, remember) would anyone shoot this already off-putting tale, as Antonioni opted to do, on lowly videotape?

     No matter that Antonioni's kinetic Eurostar, Monica Vitti, portrayed the smitten queen. The Mystery of Oberwald disappeared from sight after a brief, abortive American opening in 1981. Now it's back, lovingly copied from the original master, and available (Facets Video, $79.95) on April 2. What's the twenty-years-after verdict? Mixed. I have much respect for Antonioni's odd venture, radically unlike any of his other movies, more in the line of Rossellini or Visconti. But I can't claim to be swept away. The talk is trying, and there's no way to burrow inside the ritualized melodrama, Racine/Calderon without the poetry.

     Still, it's neat watching Vitti stretch out with monologues and soliloquys; and The Mystery of Oberwald does have a fabulous double-death kitsch ending which (would Antonioni acknowledge a Hollywood western?) seems an homage to the guy-gal shoot-out in the desert finishing King Vidor's 1946 Duel in the Sun. Most impressive, and prescient, is Antonioni's video experiment, anticipating the DV revolution for narrative films. The filmmaker who literally painted the park grass extra-green in Blow Up here grooves on video-enhanced, incantatory hazes and hues.

     Quoting Antonioni's 1980 words concerning his Edisonian techno-trailblazing: "The electronic system is very stimulating. At first, it seems like a game. They put you in front of a console full of knobs, and by moving them, you can add or take away color, meddle with its quality and with the relationships between varius tonalities... In short, you realize quickly that it isn't a game, but rather a new world of cinema... using color as a narrative, poetic means... with absolute faithfulness, or, if so desired, with absolute falseness."

(February, 2000)

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