★★★★ / ★★★★
A few great movies can be summed up in one word and it is not considered a hyperbole. With “Fitzcarraldo,” written and directed by Werner Herzog, the word is “fearless”—in ambition, scope, and execution. Coming into the picture, I have seen about a half a dozen images of a steamboat atop a sizable hill. I was dazzled then. But actually watching the massive boat being dragged from a river onto land and up a steep slope is something else entirely—it is a spectacle. Knowing that none of the images on screen are made by computer trickery adds to the raw sensation of witnessing something extraordinary.
Brian Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski) has a dream: To build the greatest opera in the South American jungle and have Caruso as his star attraction. Building an opera house will require considerable funds. Since Peru’s rubber business proves to be very profitable, he hopes get into it by purchasing an unclaimed land, one that is teeming with rubber trees. The catch is in order to get there, one must go through dangerous riverbends and rapids as well as survive against hostile native people.
To immerse us in the story, Herzog makes a point to allow the scenes to unfold in a slow but nonetheless fascinating fashion. From the moment Fitzgerald is introduced, we are curious about him because his obsession appears to be indomitable. Kinski is perfect for the role because he creates a character whose frame, movement, and posture communicates a desperation to succeed. His one great failure, which involves an incomplete railway, still hangs over his head and we get the impression that if this latest project were to fail, it just might destroy him. Thus, before the exposition ends, we understand and sympathize with the protagonist. We root for his dream to be realized.
The picture has an eye for nature, from huge trunks of trees being sawed off to the majesty of the river up ahead, and once the journey is over, it feels as though we have gotten a real taste—one that lingers—of the Amazon River. Lesser movies that are shot on location usually fail to capture that feeling of presence. Here, because Herzog is such a perfectionist and he knows exactly what he wishes to capture and convey, we are in the moment every step of the way. The experience is one that is considered to be transportive.
It also has an eye for interesting faces, from Fitzcarraldo and his lover (Claudia Cardinale) to Fitzcarraldo’s motley crew on the ship (Miguel Ángel Fuentes, Paul Hittscher, Huerequeque Enrique Bohórquez). When the camera rests on an indigenous person’s face, whether it be that of a fierce leader or an innocent child, there is a regal quality in the faces without distracting remnants of one trying hard to give a performance. When they look at a distance, especially during a scene where they mourn for their dead, it is almost like they are telling a story. In a way, the film is similar to a documentary in that rawness is valued and treasured. We get a sense of a specific culture.
“Fitzcarraldo” reminded me a sensational feeling when I saw Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “Santa sangre” for the first time. Both defy categorization. And both demand its images to be ingrained in our minds so deeply that it sets the bar for other movies of its type—if other directors—future, past, and present—are brave enough to take a similar gamble.