Il Boemo, the story of a forgotten Czech composer who rose to fame in the second half of the 18th century, celebrated its world premiere in the main competition of the San Sebastián Festival on September 19, conquering award-winning filmmaker Petr Václav for more than a decade to complete.
Known as Il Boemo, Josef Mysliveček’s fame was short-lived. He died before the age of 44, after a tumultuous career composing music for Italian courts and theatres.
But Václav, along with his DPs Diego Romero and Suarez Llanos, costume designer Andrea Cavalletto and a cast of top opera singers, have created an action-packed historical piece that celebrates his turbulent life, operatic drama and the aesthetic beauty of the theatrical era.
Variety spoke to Václav ahead of the theatrical release.
Why not Josef Mysliveček as well known today as some of his contemporaries?
He is certainly not the only composer who has fallen into oblivion. Composers were little more than domestic servants, although some became quite famous in their day. They were under a lot of pressure to write the newest, most fashionable music for old and well-known libretti. The artist cult only came later, with Romanticism. Mysliveček was an early example of this freer, more romantic lifestyle.
Part of the reason he was forgotten is because he died of syphilis and was therefore viewed as an immoral person. His friend Leopold Mozart wrote to his son Wolfgang: “I feel very sorry for him. you know my heart But he is the author of his own unhappiness and his miserable and despicable life. So now he has to be ashamed in front of the whole world.”
How did the project come about?
I was drawn to it because it is an Icarian drama, a tale of bold rise and fall. I was also drawn to the costumes, furniture, and candles of this era. And of course 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 hardly or only poorly received. I was fascinated by his life story. When I 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 might have been a bad composer. I only discovered his music step by step by going to the archive together with the orchestra leader 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. Castrati and coloratura parts remain extremely difficult, even for today’s singers and countertenors. So we had to work with the best musicians to show that his music is really exceptional.
How did you come up with such a large budget by Czech standards of 5.5 million euros (5.5 million US dollars)?
It was very difficult. I don’t think it’s the biggest budget Czech film of all time, but it certainly looks big for a Czech Republic film. However, the film is set in Italy and in the 18th century, and such a setting requires a large budget. Considering the cost of historical drama and the music we recorded live, my budget is actually very small.
How long did you work on this film?
In 2010 I received a scholarship from the French Academy in Rome. I took a year and a half to study and research the archives. Writing the screenplay took another year. While trying to raise money for the film, I wrote and directed three feature-length films and one documentary. Filming was supposed to start in 2019 but money and COVID kept delaying us.
Tell us about filming real opera stars? Do they have different acting skills than big or small actors?
I enjoy working with all types of actors, both amateur and experienced big actors. The opera singers in “Il Boemo” only played opera singers on stage, that is, in roles that they knew very well. The only exception was the tenor, who played a dialogue scene after his performance. He really enjoyed it. He’s very good on screen.
Why is this film relevant to today’s audience?
I think Josef’s story of becoming an artist, his desire to find real meaning in his own life, to gain a kind of artistic freedom, is a timeless story. And then there is the beauty of the costumes and the sets. Plus, it’s always exciting to discover great music by a forgotten composer who deserves to be known.
How much do you think the costumes contribute to the film?
The costumes are extremely important, as is the overall 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 much historical drama.
What are you most excited about 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 Oscar race.
What are you doing next?
I have several projects: I have another historical piece in the works. It’s a woman’s story. I have a science fiction film in French or English. I have large and small budget projects in Italian, French and English. I have a lot planned, but for now I want to focus on Il Boemo and help it find a worldwide audience.
https://variety.com/2022/film/festivals/josef-myslivecek-il-boemo-petr-vaclav-1235375822/ Titles of the San Sebastian competition “Il Boemo” broken down by director Petr Václav