Director Petr Václav on the redemption of the disgraced opera composer “Il Boemo” in the Czech Oscar
Making its world premiere in the main competition of the San Sebastián Festival on September 19, “Il Boemo”, the story of a forgotten Czech composer who rose to fame in the second half of the 18th century, took the award-winning filmmaker Petr Vaclav over a decade to complete.
Known as Il Boemo, Josef Mysliveček’s fame was short-lived. He died before he reached the age of 44, after a meteoric career composing music for Italian courts and theaters.
But Václav, along with his DPs Diego Romero and Suarez Llanos, costume designer Andrea Cavalletto, and a slew of top opera singers, created an action-packed period piece, celebrating his tumultuous life, his drama lyrical and aesthetic beauty of the era.
Variety spoke with Václav ahead of the film’s release.
Why is Josef Mysliveček not as well known today as some of his contemporaries?
He is certainly not the only forgotten composer. Composers were little more than servants, although some became quite famous in their day. They were under great pressure to write the newest, trendiest music for old and familiar librettos. The cult of artists only came later, with the arrival of Romanticism. Mysliveček was an early example of this freer, more romantic lifestyle.
Part of the reason he was forgotten is that he died of syphilis and was therefore considered an immoral person. His friend Leopold Mozart wrote to his son Wolfgang: “I really feel sorry for him. You know my heart. But he is the author of his own misfortune and of his miserable and despicable life. So now he must be ashamed in front of the whole world.
How was the project born?
I was drawn to it because it is an Icarian drama, the story of a bold rise and a precipitous fall. I was also drawn to the period costumes, furniture and candles. And of course by the music of the 18th century.
Why were you fascinated by Mysliveček’s music and where did you discover it?
I wasn’t fascinated by Myslivecek’s music when I started researching the project. His music was barely recorded, or when it was, it was badly recorded. I was amazed by the story of his life. When I first started thinking about Mysliveček, only three of his operas had been recorded, but they weren’t good recordings. They were so bad that I feared Mysliveček was a bad composer. I only discovered his music step by step, going to the archives with the conductor, Vaclav Luks, who played and explained his music to me on the piano. Mysliveček wrote arias for the greatest castrati, tenors and sopranos of his time. This means that his music cannot be performed without the best voices of our time. The castrato and coloratura parts remain extremely difficult even for today’s female singers and countertenors. It was therefore necessary to work with the best musicians to show that his music is really really exceptional.
How did you come up with such a large budget, by Czech standards, of 5.5 million euros ($5.5 million)?
It was very difficult. I don’t think it’s the biggest budget Czech film, but it certainly looks huge for a film from the Czech Republic. However, the film is set in Italy and the 18th century, and a setting like that requires a big budget. Considering the cost of period dramas and the music we recorded live, my budget is actually very small.
How long did you work on this film?
I received a scholarship from the French Academy in Rome in 2010. I took a year and a half to study and do research in the archives. Writing the screenplay took another year. While trying to raise funds for the film, I wrote and shot three fiction feature films and a documentary. Filming was supposed to start in 2019, but money and COVID delayed us again and again.
Tell us about shooting real opera stars? Do they have a different kind of acting talent than big screen or small screen actors?
I like to work with all kinds of actors, both with non-professionals and with great experienced actors. The opera singers of “Il Boemo” only played opera singers on stage, so they were in roles they knew very well. The only exception was the tenor who performed a dialogue scene after his performance. He really enjoyed it. He is very good on screen.
Why is this film relevant to today’s audience?
I think Josef’s story of becoming an artist, of his desire to give real meaning to his own life, to achieve a kind of artistic freedom, is a timeless story. And then there is the beauty of the costumes and sets. Also, it’s always exciting to discover the great music of a forgotten composer, someone who deserves to be known.
In your opinion, how much do the costumes bring to the film?
The costumes are extremely important, as is the whole visual aspect of the film. I wanted to make a beautiful film, but I also wanted it to be a film free from the conventions of so many period dramas.
What are you most satisfied with in the finished project?
It’s really exciting to have the chance to premiere the film in Competition in San Sebastián. And to represent the Czech Republic in the race for the Oscars.
What do you do next?
I have several projects: I have another period piece in the works. It’s a woman’s story. I have a science fiction film in French or in English. I have high and low budget projects in Italian, French and English. I have a lot of projects, but for now I want to focus on “Il Boemo” and help it find a global audience.
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