Writer and Director: Petr Václav
Il Boemo is a lavish film intended to restore the reputation of Josef Mysliveček, a prolific eighteenth-century Czech composer who was hugely successful in Italy on the 1760s and 70s. Writer and director Petr Václav is clearly on a mission to get Mysliveček returned to the canon, having already made a documentary about him, Confession of the Vanished (2015), his source material being letters between Mozart and Mysliveček who had met when Mozart was still a child.
The difficulties of scripting the biopic Il Boemo, however, is the scarcity of information. We have Mysliveček’s dates and his impressive list of compositions. But little is known about his life, other than that he was allegedly promiscuous. Early on it seems that Il Boemo won’t duck the issue of his promiscuity. The composer is shown at the end of his short life in the final stages of tertiary syphilis. Václav lingers on the distressing ravages to Mysliveček’s face. He peals off his skin mask, to reveal a terrifying face, skin is raw and blistered, and there is a gaping hole where his nose should be.
We are then taken back to the start of Mysliveček’s career in Venice. Played by Vojtech Dyk, the composer is presented as tall and handsome. But there is nothing of the daring or sexiness that would suggest promiscuity. Mysliveček may end up sleeping with a series of women, but in each case, the woman has thrown herself at him: he just accepts advances woodenly. One bereft lover notably throws herself from the balcony at the opera. But Václav is determined to present Mysliveček as noble and pure-spirited. We have to believe that he doesn’t marry or take a long-term lover because he is married to his art.
So what follows over some two hours of lush Italian interiors is a steady procession of musical ladies (and most are indeed ladies, though given to label rivals as whores). Mysliveček says very little. He sits in his fine apartment (courtesy of an early lover) and composes thoughtfully. Then he is tastefully filmed having sex with one woman or another (they all look remarkably similar). Time passes and we’re told we’re now in Napoli or Roma or wherever where the sequence is replayed.
It should be a delight. We can’t help hoping for a new Amadeus. But Mysliveček is dull. He is given no background, no real feelings. Most of his lovers are portrayed unsympathetically – either scarily diva-ish, like the celebrity soprano La Gabriella (Barbara Ronchi) or earnest, like the musician Anna Fracassati (Lana Vlady) who advises him to read Diderot. Nor is there much by way of dramatic tension. Other the lurking threat of syphilis, necessarily kept in the background, nothing much happens. Mysliveček goes from strength to strength as a composer. Women continue to fall for him. Husbands tend to be madly jealous. Nobody dies. No one, indeed, appears to be suffering from syphilis.
Musically it should really be a treat. Václav includes generous extracts from many of Mysliveček’s forgotten operas. But they are all distractingly lipsynched by the actors and he mostly fails to give subtitles. That means there’s no way of connecting the emotions on stage to the reality of Mysliveček’s life, surely the most obvious of biographical tropes? Only at the end when he treats us to a very long aria from his Armide are we encouraged to join up the dots between the soprano’s singing of her enduring love, and Mysliveček’s devotion to Anna.
The scene when Mysliveček meets Mozart should be the centre piece, but Václav is so determined to buff up the reputations of his heroes and heroines that he smooths out all possible tension. The child prodigy (Philip Amadeus Hahn) is alarmingly courteous, and although, inevitably, he starts to improvise on one Mysliveček’s new pieces, he lacks anything of Mozart’s impudence and mischief.
Il Boemo is screening at the 27th Made in Prague Festival 2023.