Another tangentially on-topic film went into the old DVD player the other night: Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982).
Klaus Kinski plays an obsessive visionary kook (shades of José Arcadio Buendía from One Hundred Years of Solitude, but with a crazed intensity that radiates from Kinski's every movement) with a passion for grand opera. An appearance by Enrico Caruso and Sarah Bernhardt at the Teatros Amazonas in Manaus stokes his latest dream: to build an opera house in the town further in the jungle’s interior in which he lives, and to have Caruso sing at the opening.
Fitzcarraldo doesn't really grasp the distance between dream and reality, a distance made vaster by the audacity of his visions. To make the money for his opera house, he enters the rubber business, optioning a plot of land made inaccessible by treacherous rapids and unfriendly natives. He hires his crew from the motley collection of laborers who are unemployed during boom times. Fitzcarraldo’s planned route to his land is virtually impossible. The whole project is ill-advised and destined for disaster.*
While the crew carries various guns and knives, Fitzcarraldo is armed with a stack of Caruso records and an unshakeable belief in his dream. When war drums echo through the jungle, he responds by cranking up his Victrola and serenading the natives with Verdi. And it works. (To Herzog’s credit the native tribe that Fitzcarraldo encounters is treated sensitively and with intelligence. They never become a surrogate for a lost Western ideal, and their motives remain their own even as they undertake the bizarrely
The movie has a great many scenes that are breathtakingly beautiful: huge old-growth rainforest trees crash into a river; a steamship emerges from dissipating fog at a 45-degree angle on the mountainside; the ship slams through an unnavigable stretch of rapids; plus the innumerable gorgeous shots of the Amazonian basin. The on-location scenery is large part of the mixture of reality and hallucination that makes the film spellbinding.
* To skim articles online, the same could be said for Herzog’s movie. It was shot on location, with real Indians, a histrionic leading man, a maniacal director and the Herculean labor at the heart of the film. There’s also a documentary called The Burden of Dreams (which I’m looking forward to tracking down) that details the “fever dream” of making Fitzcarraldo.