Friday, October 7, 2011

Movie Review: Fitzcarraldo

This movie is about a white man, the eponymous Fitzcarraldo [1], who is obsessed with the famous tenor, Enrico Caruso, and frequently plays a record of his singing on a phonograph.[2] As the movie starts Fitzcarraldo arrives in a motor boat, quite exhausted from his trip down the river, only to learn that the doors of the opera house where Caruso is singing have already been closed. He manages to finagle his way in, but he decides that it would be easier to be on time if he builds his own opera house in the town where he lives: Iquitos, a Peruvian town deep in the Amazon. But to do so, he needs money. So he decides to become a rubber baron. But the only tract of land still available is crammed between impassable mountain ranges, a treacherous set of rapids called Pongo das Mortes [3], and the territory of the Jivaro Indians who are headhunters. The solution he comes up with is to drag a steamboat over a low section of one of the mountain ranges into the river upstream of the rapids.

What is most remarkable about this movie is that the director, Werner Herzog, decided against using special effects to depict the boat being taken over the mountain—he actually did it. And he was beset with all of the problems encountered in the script, plus a few more.[4]

My verdict: This film had some great moments [5], but other than the spectacular feat of moving the ship over the mountain, it's rather unmoving and anticlimactic. Klaus Kinski (who plays Fitzarraldo) comes across as a benign maniac (which is the case in all of his films that I've seen, so far). It doesn't help that his hair is always standing on end, like a mad scientist. It's unclear why his mistress puts up with him, much less finances his hair-brained ideas. The sound is either poorly done or poorly preserved—it's rarely in sync with the actors' mouths. This is one of the many films that cashed in on the brief fame of synthesizers. It doesn't really jive well with the film (especially juxtaposed with the operatic performances of Enrico Caruso); it's a good thing that trend died away. The cinematography is spectacular and really captures the Amazon jungle well.

Mystery Fact: One of the native employees (or rather, the actor [6]) is perhaps better known as PumaMan.


[1] His name is actually Fitzgerald, but the natives had trouble pronouncing it.

[2] I'm amazed at the popularity of opera—it's usually in a foreign language and the acting is always  wooden.

[3] Which is supposedly Portuguese for "Rapids of Death".

[4] You can read about some of them at Roger Ebert's "Great Movie" review, here and at the Wikipedia article, here.

[5] In one rather chilling scene, while the steamboat is traveling through headhunter country, the Jivaro Indians send a signal that they don't want any visitors. They set an umbrella, taken from a Catholic missionary they murdered many years before, floating upside-down down the river towards the steamboat. This was much more effective at setting the mood than a later scene with the stereotypical arrow embedding itself, without warning, in the wall next to a nervous man's head.

[6] Miguel Ángel Fuentes (see

Image attributions:

The Amazon River at sunrise is by Mark Goble, available at

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