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Fitzcarraldo

Year: 1982
Production Co: Werner Herzog Filmproduktion
Director: Werner Herzog
Writer: Werner Herzog
Cast: Klaus Kinski, Claudia Cardinale

Another one with an outsized reputation that does it no favours if you come to it completely cold.

If you know anything about the general consensus among cineastes, you know this is the one about the crazy guy who dragged a ship over a hill, directed in Apocalypse Now style chaos by a crazy guy who actually did stage the pulling of a ship over a hill.

Behind the scenes stories like the local tribe putting a curse on Herzog and offering to kill Kinski for the director after his antics put everyone offside only add to the mystique. But there's a lot of shoe leather beforehand. Until then it's an hour or more over overacting and to be honest, not very great filmmaking.

Fitzcarraldo (Kinski) is what the local Peruvians call the hero because they can't pronounce the Irish entrepreneur's real name, Fitzgerald. He's an opera fan determined to build a grand opera house in the local township but he already has one failed project behind him, a long abandoned trans-Peruvian railway that's rotting away in the jungle.

But he and his business partner (who seems like a sometime lover as well) Molly (Claudine Cardinale) come into the good graces of a slimy rubber baron who lets Fitzcarraldo in on a secret. The government is giving out plantation leases and there's one deep in indigenous territory that might produce the wealth the pair want for their opera house.

They acquire and clean up a huge steamship, acquire a (dodgy) crew from the local township and set off through the wilderness, tempers and drunkenness flaring and the whole thing threatening to fall apart as soon as they're underway.

It takes a long time to reach the crossroads of the story (and to be honest, the reason you're here), and I can imagine a lot of casual filmgoers giving up long before. Because when they get to the boat-over-the-hill, it's worth it.

Fitzcarraldo has had the choice of two rivers to go down, but one is impassable because of rapids. The one they take rounds a bend and is separate from the one they have to be in by only a single hillside 100 or so feet high. He decides (and the production actually staged) to literally clear the thick forest in the path and pull the ship over.

A little earlier on, the scary indigenous tribes everyone warned Fitzcarraldo and his crew about have turned up, and the two groups have tentatively made friends by trading, smoking and eating together. Against all the odds and for reasons known to nobody, when he asks them to help with the ship they agree. So he builds a systems of pulleys and winches out of the landscape and recruits them as his own small army to gradually drag a thousand ton boat up and over a muddy hillside.

When that starts, both the film itself and Herzog's direction takes off, as if he couldn't really be that bothered with all the early stuff and just wanted to get to the arresting centrepiece. Depicting the construction of the mechanisms, the work and danger involved and several long static shots of the behemoth steamship inching its way up a hill are brilliantly staged and shot.

I have a feeling the documentary Burden of Dreams, all about the death-defying making of the movie, is more interesting than most of the stuff in it that isn't about the ship, and as a film fan it looks like it contains all the stuff you need to know.

But it has an evocative sense of time and place in smalltown South America and telling a story about what looks like the authentic plight of Westerners eager to exploit the spoils found in South America in the colonial era.

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