DVD Review of Gesualdo: Death For Five Voices

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/4/10


  Werner Herzog, in his storied film career, has made many a good documentary and mockumentary. Gesualdo: Death For Five Voices (Tod Für Fünf Stimmen), made in 1995, is not one of them. Coming from a master of cinema, like Herzog, though, that still means Gesualdo is a pretty good film, but don’t expect anything of depth. Ostensibly, the film is a chronicle of the life of a 16th and 17th Century prince and musical composer named Don Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa. One might think that the sordid tale that emerges in the 60 minute, made for television documentary, was crafted just to satisfy Herzog’s own dictates about ‘ecstatic truth.’

  The film centers around Gesualdo’s murder of his first wife, one Maria D’Avalos. The legend is that Gesualdo hired goons to rub out his wife in her bed, with an aristocratic lover. The bodies were then tossed into the street where a passing necrophilic monk supposedly copulated with Maria’s corpse. No, I’m not making this up, as it seems to be a fact. There are also scenes on various estates of the prince where Herzog seems to just happen upon wacky locals (although he has admitted that they were staged events designed to get at a deeper reality about Gesualdo). There is a poor bagpipe playing musician who comes every week to the castle to play music to ward off the prince’s evil spirit. At another time we see a supposed attractive red haired female mental patient running through ruins (never being able to lose Herzog’s camera- a tip off to the setup), who, when trapped, claims she is the reincarnation of Maria, and that she lives in heaven, which may or may not be an opera box. It just happens that this Italian ‘mental patient’ speaks English, has a boom box with her, and is wearing a pushup bustier that enhances her massive mammary glands. She was hired by Herzog for the role, and is an Italian opera singer of some note called Milva.

  But, the worst thing about the film is the hagiographizing of Gesualdo as a musical genius, simply because several modern composers have tried to link him to their work. Yet, when one listens to the compositions played by an amateur ensemble, well, genius is not the word one feels evincing itself. The music is certainly not bad, but it is merely competent. There is none of the instant recognition of greatness one gets from listening to an Erik Satie piano etude nor the internal spark of seduction that a Vivaldi concerto for classical guitar imparts. Yes, there is a certain legitimacy to the gripe that the singers and conductor in the ensemble are not exactly top notch, but even adjusting a bit for amateurishness, the music simply will never be mistaken for something Mozart or Beethoven penned. Yet, this is exactly what Herzog intends- to build a dissonance between the mediocrity of his music and the flamboyance (mostly because of his wickedry) of the man. Why is he profiling this rather obscure (deservedly so) artist? Simple. It is what Werner Herzog must do to be Werner Herzog. In that sense, Gesualdo: Death For Five Voices reveals far more about its creator than it does about its subject. Witness the multiple breaks of the fourth wall, and the sometimes absurdly long takes of people babbling on about Gesualdo’s life whilst Herzog’s camera strays to a cobweb upon a window or across a once verdant valley that Gesualdo reputedly chopped down himself over the course of several months.

  What all this might have to do with revelation of something deeper is….well, nothing. If anything, this film’s quirky style is its raison d’etre. One feels that, had Herzog not settled on Gesualdo as fodder. He would have made a film about the very next thing that popped into his mind. And the film’s style of embellishment upon already wacky reality seems designed to make Gesualdo: Death For Five Voices a This Is Spinal Tap of classical music, or an F For Fake for music. Why? Again, because it’s Werner Herzog. Unfortunately, the lack of depth is what ultimately dooms this film. Other than Herzog’s interest in the composer and his luridness, there really is no reason for anyone else to be interested, unlike other great documentaries he’s done. Lessons Of Darkness, My Best Fiend, Grizzly Man, and Little Dieter Needs To Fly, all had reasons for their making and/or provided a new twist on something not seen before. Gesualdo: Death For Five Voices is just a quirky little television documentary, possibly a made for hire production.

  The DVD, put out by Image Entertainment, is shown in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, and has no features. Herzog provides translated voiceover to the Italian speaking interviewees- a much better technique than subtitling. Some of the contributors to the film are interesting to watch and hear, such as Alan Curtis, the music director of the singing ensemble II Complesso Barocco, and Professor Ludica of the Archeological Museum in Venosa. Even though they may be in on Herzog’s gag, they look straight into the camera and intone a requisite solemnity. But, one ‘expert’ totally muffs his cues, reads his handwritten notes onscreen, and stumble sover his words multiple times. That would be Gerald Pace, director of The Gesualdo Consort Of London. That Herzog did not even bother to insist on a modicum of professionalism from Pace suggests that this project was not one particularly dear to his heart.

  Regardless, intent means nothing, and the end result of all the confabulations, half-assed expertise, and staged incidents is a mediocre film, possibly the worst Herzog’s ever made, and certainly the worst film of his I’ve watched. But, again, the caveat is that Herzog is a great artist, so even his worst has moments of artistic and journalistic redemption that makes a viewer smirk, despite his better angels. The film claims that Gesualdo spent the last 16 years of his life as an increasingly insane and reclusive madman. Whether or not this is true is of no real import, but by the end of this ‘documentary’ I was of the opinion that had Herzog shot the film as a fiction, along the line of his earlier The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser, the film would have been better for its odd flourishes. A touch of his patented ‘eye level realism,’ a dash of ‘ecstatic truth,’ and participants that seem to be a bit more engaged, and Herzog could have really bamboozled a fictive account of the wacky composer that his ‘straight’ mockumentary misses. As it is, Gesualdo: Death For Five Voices is merely a curio, even if from a master. But, after a curio is in one’s grip, it ends up in a corner with dust upon it. Swiffer, anyone?


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Talking Pictures website.]


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