TBT: Farinelli (1994)

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You might think that a film such as Farinelli (1994), featuring a gorgeous male lead, placed in a sumptuous 18th-century world of sexy sexiness and set to fabulous classical music, would have been something I would have watched decades ago. You’d be surprised, however, that though I have known about this film since it first came out *ahem* 21 years ago, that I have never actually watched it until just now. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I was a Farinelli virgin for far too long. Shoulda popped that cherry ages ago.

And how was this orgiastic feast for the eyes and ears? Well…

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Well…

It was okay.

Perhaps, over the years, I had built this film up into something far greater in my imagination than it could have ever been in real life. Maybe it was the fact that right around the same time the film came out, I had read A Cry to Heaven by Anne Rice, whose hero was loosely based on Carlo Broschi, and it spoiled me a bit. That book had insane amounts of passion and sex like only Anne Rice could deliver. In my head, I wanted Farinelli to match that swirling, seething world of sumptuousness and carnality, wrapped up in fine silk with a soundtrack of the greatest hits of the 18th century. Perhaps my expectations of this particular lover were too great, because wow, for all the sex in this film, it was some of the least passionate love-making I’ve seen since the time I last slept with my ex-boyfriend.

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It was pretty underwhelming.

Stefano Dionisi is downright beautiful as Carlo, but despite the pretty façade, there’s not much really going on there. He’s supposed to be tortured by the fact that he was castrated (allegedly by an accidental fall from a horse when he was a child), but despite that, he has no trouble satisfying scores of women, letting his brother Riccardo (Enrico Lo Verso) swoop in to provide the symbolic ejaculatory event that he cannot. Obviously, he’s doing a favor to his less-handsome brother out of some weird pact they have to share everything in their lives, from music to women. Riccardo clearly thinks this arrangement is the bomb and is more than happy to get all the sloppy seconds in the world, probably because it would smack of effort if he had to bed a woman using his own skills.

Let’s just stop for a second and appreciate the portraits of the real Carlo and Riccardo.

Anyway, everyone wants to fuck Farinelli, and who is Farinelli to deny them all? Even Handel, played by veteran actor Jeroen Krabbé, has some kind of weird homoerotic thing for the castrato that results in some kind of bizarre competition between the two men as they stalk one another, refusing the give the other what he desires. Still, none of this was titillating, or even mildly sexy … It all just came across as though the actors couldn’t be bothered. 

Not even the Dandy Highwayman seemed to give a damn.

As for the costumes … also, meh. While the film delivered a nice richness and depth to the sets that felt weighted down with an appropriate amount of silk brocade and bullion fringe, the costumes were just underwhelming. The fact that the director used quite a lot of tight shots on the actors’ faces didn’t help, because I guess some people watch a costume flick for the faces? The opera costumes were by far the most interesting costumes in the film, but none of the women had anything on that was particularly worth noting. And the men all mostly wore dark frock coats without a lot of trim or embroidery. One exception was the Prince of Wales, who had a fabulous wig and a pretty flashy outfit.

Are we not entertained?

Which brings me to the subject of hair. Note: I am not the wig expert here at Frock Flicks, but regardless, the hair in this film was split 50/50 between “Mid-1990s Sexy Mullet” and “All Over the Map 18th-Century Wigs.” The women’s hair seemed to waver between “Sort of Right for the Mid-18th-Century” and “Ms. Frizzle Goes to Versailles.”

That wig totally happened.

Anyway, it’s not a bad film, but it just failed to send me over the falls, if you will. Like a mediocre lover, it’s all hype and no substance.

The director did, at least, include this shot of these shoes.

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

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Sarah discovered her dual passion for history and costume right around the age of twelve. Dragged kicking and screaming to her first Renaissance Faire at Black Point, she was convinced she was going to hate it, but to her surprise, she fell head over heels in love with the world of reenactment and dress up immediately. Her undergraduate degree is in Clothing & Textile Design, and she has a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture. When she’s not hauling crap to SCA events and ren faires, Sarah enjoys reading true crime books, writing fiction, and sewing historical clothing from the Middle Ages through the 20th-century. One of these days, she might even start updating her old costuming blog again.

12 Responses

  1. Clara

    What a pity! I was currently on a massive Haendel kick and I was considering watching it, but I think I shall pass on this one. But I have to ask if there is even the slightest mention to Farinelli’s time in Spain? He lived there for 25 years and his relationship with both Philip V (to whom he sang during his paroxysms of insanity) and Ferdinand VI (he even composed an aria for him) is quite fascinating

    Reply
    • Clara

      So I checked and Philip does appear, but methinks it’s going to be short.
      (Also apologies for that bit of ableism which was due to a really por choice of words in translation. I’m still facepalming at myself)

      Reply
      • Sarah Lorraine

        The film does deal a bit with his “retirement” to Spain. The last 30 minutes or so are at Phillip’s court, but it’s not really developed much. There’s a mention to Farinelli no longer performing for anyone but the King, but aside from that it’s not expounded upon.

        Reply
  2. aelarsen

    “Like a mediocre lover, it’s all hype and no substance.” If you’re going to compare the film to its lead character, you’re going to have to accept a certain letdown. What do you expect from a film about a castrati? Gushing ejaculations of costuming? HE DOESN”T HAVE THE EQUIPMENT!

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      But in all seriousness, I really wanted this to be more like A Cry To Heaven, because DUDE. ALL THE SEX. WITH EVERYONE. IN FABULOUS COSTUMES.

      Then again, this was the early-90s. Even Interview With The Vampire got seriously scrubbed clean when it got to the screen. I wonder if it’s worth imagining what a film like Farinelli would be like now? Would it be more sanitized, or less?

      I’m going for less. In a post-“The Tudors” world, I’m saying we need an NC-17 rating AT LEAST to make it interesting to modern audiences. ;)

      Reply
  3. MoHub

    I’m both a costume geek and a classical musician, and Farinelli was hugely disappointing on both fronts. The best thing in the film was the opera stage costumes; everything else was blah.

    Reply
  4. Al

    The EXTRAVAGANT costumes of Farinelli were actually designed by creator FRANCOIS DINANT at URSUL PONEY the person in charge of the film costum had no ideas and not the skills so she came to visit him. he was a genius but not a business personn he draw all details in few minuts and gave heras she promised he will be part of the project and known as the designer.Unfortunately his name barely appears in the production but i got some of his designs so any one who want to contest is welcome. Frrinelli costume is all by him 100 per cent!

    Reply
  5. KennyS

    Thank you for this essay! I saw this film recently. I think it is amazing, one of the best films I have ever seen. Farinelli’s character by Stefano Dionisi is alike what I have read: distant but polite. According to BBC documentaries, castratos did have a difficult and unpredictable personality. And low sex drive. I think that is included to the film in a delicate way. I work in the field of fashion + sometimes costumes and I really liked the costumes of the film. I prefer colour blocking more than details, and I really enjoyed the colour palette. I understood that it was the director’s decision that the actors could have their natural hair and modern day movement. The London theater scene is filmed on location in Bayreuth Germany but unfortunately that authentic Margravial Opera House and UNESCO World Heritage spot is closed for the restoration.

    Reply

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