Opera Meets Film: ‘Nessun Dorma’ As An Emotional Anthem In ‘Bend It Like Beckham’

By David Salazar
(Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures)

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 Gurinder Chadha’s 2002 classic “Bend it Like Beckham.”

It’s might seem like a cliché for “Nessun Dorma” to be the opera selection to appear at the climax of “Bend it Like Beckham.” In a film where a young girl is constantly butting heads with the conservative world of her family as she tries to carve out her own identity, it seems on-the-nose for opera’s greatest hit to be the one that signals her victory.

And while a superficial reading of the scene might lead to this understandable takeaway, the purpose is far greater in the context of the entire film. Here is the scene in question.

But the scene should not be read alone out of context. It serves as a fitting climax to everything that has come before on a truly profound level.

All Jess wants to do throughout the film is play soccer / football. But her conservative Indian family just wants her to conform to their standards of womanhood, get a boyfriend, and get married. She sneaks off to play on a girl’s club where she falls in love with her coach. But after several complications, she ultimately finds herself at her sister’s wedding, miserable while her team plays a match in front of a scout that is interested in her talents. On the line is an opportunity to go to school in the U.S. on a soccer / football scholarship.

Her father eventually gives in and lets her seize control of her destiny and she runs off to the match where she changes her team’s fortunes at the death, scoring the game winner off a free kick outside the penalty area.

As she lines up for the big goal, Puccini’s famed aria starts to blare through the soundtrack, taking over. It is obviously intended to add monumentality to the moment that will cap the entire journey for Jess. And reading too much subtext into it would also take away from what Chadha ultimately wants us to take away from this inclusion – unsurpassed catharsis.

Chadha has never shied away from what she has called “corniness.” She has repeatedly noted that she cares for emotional forwardness and honesty in her films as a means of connecting directly with her audience.

As such, there can be no doubt what she wants us to take away from the inclusion of “Nessun Dorma.” She knows that audiences will recognize the piece not only for the emotions that it evokes on a musical level, but what it also symbolizes in its context. While opera audiences have been reveling in the aria’s climactic intensity since 1920, the mainstream first really understood its power in 1990 when the Three Tenors, and most prominently Pavarotti, made it the hymn for the World Cup in Italy. It thus became a UNIVERSAL anthem of victory.

So yes, Chadha does want the audience to make that connection and realize the operatic and global magnitude of this victory for Jess, mainly because not many other girls like her ever reach this moment. To accentuate its essence, there is even a moment where Jess sees her family standing in front of her, as if to block the shot from going in.

So when the tenor in the film hits the High B on “Vincerò,” the ball goes into the net giving two different teams a major victory – Jess’ team on the field, and all the other girls who dream of overcoming cultural boundaries to enjoy a moment like this as well.


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