Dir: Alessandro Baricco. Italy, UK. 2008. 92 mins.
As the title implies, this is at heart a lecture. In it, Alessandro Baricco, a former music critic and well-known novelist in Italy, gives his take on one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, through the device of a fictitious university professor played by John Hurt, whose Lecture 21 deals with the maestro's last complete symphony.
Baricco's debut is a non-narrative, impressionistic, almost fairy-tale-like English-language co-production, for which he had the help of two of Europe's most experienced producers, Domenico Procacci in Italy and Simon Channing Williams in the UK (as co-producer). Stagy and slightly didactic - Baricco's arguments on the subject are certainly not as definitive as the script would like to claim - this is a natural for themed, music-related film events, of course, with TV also providing a happy home. Theatrical is a riskier prospect, however: music purists will not appreciate all of Baricco's positions and the film's imaginary, Grimm-like fairytale sequences won't be to everybody's taste.
Mondrian Killroy (Hurt) is a unconventional British university professor and his Lecture 21 is highly-popular amongst his students, especially favourite Marta (Watling), who recounts part of this film. Killroy believes that at the time of writing the Ninth, Beethoven had, because of his deafness, been living in a solitary vacuum while around him the musical world was gradually moving towards more accommodating composers such as Rossini, Czerny or Paganini. The Ninth was his last attempt to regain his old dominance, but he was ageing, his colleagues felt he belonged to thepast, and Killroy argues that he was losing his grip on the concept of beauty.
So, the lecturer argues, the Ninth is a work of genius, but not of beauty, and the Hymn to Joy is not a prayer, but a wishful dream.
Mixed up with this are Grimm-like sequences about a music teacher, Hans Peters (Taylor), found frozen to death in 1824 (the year the symphony was first performed), violin in hand. And there's a series of unidentified characters, most of them wearing powdered wigs but often nothing more, addressing the camera on the subject of Beethoven.
It's not obvious why these fairytale, multi-media sequences with mythical figures preparing Peters for his death while destroying his illusions about the symphony and his author, are necessary. They provide a good opportunity for the cast to deliver Baricco's witty, literary texts, but overall they feel like a didactic mannerism rather than a narrative necessity.
Although Killroy's arguments won't find favour with all historians, it's pleasantly challenging to hear his intelligent opinions. But with all due respect to Baricco and his cast, the most enjoyable part of the film is still the soundtrack, and the viewer is just left longing for more of it. Shot, lit and framed by Gherardo Gossi like a series of period paintings, the picture features a very large cast giving some finely-tuned performances and although Hurt, Taylor and Watling are given larger credits, their roles are still pretty episodic. Incidentally, no one plays Beethoven. The only time he is on screen, it is from the back, walking away from the camera, for 4 seconds only.
Potboiler Productions, UK
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Simon Channing Williams
Director of photography
Music for String Quartet