Opera Meets Film: How ‘Aida’s’ Famous March Frames The Joy of Robin Cavendish’s Life in ‘Breathe’

By David Salazar

“Opera Meets Film” is a feature dedicated to exploring the way that opera has been employed in cinema. We will select a section or a film in its entirety, highlighting the impact that utilizing the operatic form or sections from an opera can alter our perception of a film that we are viewing. This week’s installment features “Breathe,” directed by Andy Serkis.

“Breathe” narrates the true story of Robin Cavendish, a man who gets paralyzed with polio at the age of 28. While Robin’s wife Diana is undeniably the motor of the film, its structure is defined by the major steps and progress that Robin makes throughout.

And filmmaker Andy Serkis charts these major moments of progress throughout musical storytelling. The first big one happens to feature the Triumphal March from Verdi’s “Aida,” showing Robin and his friend Teddy concoct a plan for a wheelchair that will allow him to get out of his bedroom and breathe some fresh air.

The music from “Aida” underscores a montage that displays two processes. The first of these is the construction of the chair by Teddy, and the latter is Robin’s testing it out and eventually enjoying a massive family gathering outside his home.

The music’s subtext could not be more obvious. This is Teddy’s first step toward living a normal life, but on a grander scale, it is also the first step toward changing the lives of many people. At the end of the day, this is Teddy’s greatest achievement and this very moment being underlined by one of the most celebratory opera passages further enhances that feeling.

But the opera passage also works on the viewer in a more immediate way. The film has rather bleak to this point, with the brief love scenes almost nullified by Robin’s illness and his ensuing depression. “Aida’s” march comes out of nowhere, with no other such musical reference at any point earlier in the movie. It provides a sudden jolt and change of energy for the viewer; this energy will carry them for much of the remainder of the film, most of it full of joy and love onscreen.

But the triumphal march does return later in the film, serving as a framing device of sorts. The audience has already been made aware of Robin’s desire to die. Despite the impending sadness surrounding that dramatic realization, Serkis gives the audience one more scene to enjoy Robin and celebrate his life. As such, we see him once more at a family gathering with the very music from “Aida” setting it all up. After this scene, the film will resume its previous darkness that had left us the moment “Aida’s” march had come on the scene. Now the light and joy leaves with the same piece of music.

What is also rather fitting about the music is that it is used in the most lavish of parties, a parallel to the opera itself. The triumphal march comes during arguably the most epic scene in all of opera with a plethora of soloists, choristers, and supers assembling on the stage in the most ambitious productions. It is only fitting that Robin also appear like a mythic hero of sorts in the midst of the friends and family that so adore him.


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