Opera Meets Film: How Opera & Vocal Art Explore Fall From Grace In Federico Veiroj’s ‘The Moneychanger’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 Federico Veiroj’s “The Moneychanger.”
The first frame of the Uruguayan film “The Moneychanger” is set in a massive desert with a group of men from biblical times walking. Moments later, these men enter a market and start to throw everything around as music from Anton Rubenstein’s “Christus” starts to roar in the background. The scene in question is this very one from the opera, with Jesus raging in the temple.
A voiceover then takes over from the opera and we hear protagonist Humberto Brause start to talk about how Jesus knew that the worst villains of society were moneychangers. The film then seamlessly transitions from biblical times to the 1970s where Brause’s story of corruption will bloom.
This opening image, as director Veiroj noted at the New York Film Festival, is meant to throw the audience into a realm of fantasy, to juxtapose an imagined sacred world with a real and gritty one. But more to the point, the allegory also emphasizes that nothing in the world of the story is held sacred. Friendship, marriage, love, family – all of those values that are such an essential part of a Catholic country like Uruguay – mean nothing in this story.
The opera will eventually make its return at the tail end of the film to reaffirm this very concept, especially as it comes on the heals of Brause making a pact with “the devil” that is likely to bind him to his corrupt lifestyle for the rest of his days. In this final instance, the Biblical scene actually reveals itself to be taking place in an opera house and with a large crane shot, we move from the stage all the way up to the top of the theater where Brause is seated with his wife, connecting this imagined staging with the reality of his life and linking us with that initial statement he made about being the ultimate evil of society.
What is fascinating to note is that this operatic scene is important in reflecting on Brause’s character on a deeper level.
Throughout the work we see him interact with classical music very deeply. At one point, while laying on a boat with his family he monologues on being Bach and Beethoven and seeing his music performed at the Metropolitan Opera. His first major sexual encounter abroad is framed within the context of Saint-Saëns’ “Bachanalle” from “Samson et Dalila,” furthering this notion of Brause seeing himself as some artistic hero. He aspires to being immortalized alongside the greatest artists in history; he wants to be a legend.
This desire to be an artist is further reflected in three instances where he starts to sing music of Bach and Mozart. After cheating on his wife and getting himself into major trouble, he heads to her church where she is engaged in a rehearsal and starts to sing to her “Dona nobis pacem (Give us peace).” It’s a performance of course, because there is no way that he is planning on giving up on his philandering way. When he goes to jail, he studies and sings Bach and when he commits murder at the end of the film, he drives in his car, once more singing another solo passage.
The most essential aspect of these moments is that they all come after low points in his life and seem to indicate his desire for redemption through art – if Brause can convince himself of his artistic greatness or that he is more than just a criminal, then perhaps he can justify these very moments.
But as that opera scene ultimately shows – Brause is no artist. He is just another man looking on from the audience as far away from the beauty of art.
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