‘Il Boemo’, the story of a forgotten Czech composer who rose to fame in the second half of the 18th century, made its world premiere in the main competition of the San Sebastián Festival on September 19. Petr Václav over a decade to complete.
Known as Il Boemo, Josef Mysliveček’s fame was short-lived. He died before he reached the age of 44, after a stormy career as a composer of music for Italian courts and theaters.
But Václav, along with his DPs, Diego Romero and Suarez Llanos, costume designer Andrea Cavalletto and a slew of top performers, has created an action-packed period piece, showcasing his tumultuous life, operatic drama and the aesthetic beauty of the era.
Variety spoke with Václav prior to the film’s outing.
Why is Josef Mysliveček . not as well known as some of his contemporaries?
He is certainly not the only composer who has been forgotten. Composers were little more than domestic servants, although some became quite famous in their day. They were under great pressure to write the latest, most fashionable music for old and well-known librettos. The cult of artists came later, with the advent of Romanticism. Mysliveček was an early example of this freer, more romantic lifestyle.
Part of the reason he was forgotten is that he died of syphilis, which is why he was seen as an immoral person. His friend Leopold Mozart wrote to his son Wolfgang: “I am very sorry for him. You know my heart. But he is the author of his own misfortune and his miserable and vile life. So now he should be ashamed of the whole world.”
How did the project come about?
I was drawn to it because it is an Icarian drama, a story of a bold rise and an abrupt fall. I was also drawn to the costumes, furniture and candles of the time. And of course through the music of the 18th century.
Why were you fascinated by Mysliveček’s music and where did you discover it?
I was not fascinated by Myslivecek’s music when I started researching the project. His music was barely recorded, or if it was, it was poorly recorded. I was amazed by his life story. When I started thinking about Mysliveček, only three of his operas had been recorded, but they were not good recordings. They were so bad that I feared Mysliveček would have been a bad composer. I discovered his music step by step and went to the archives with the conductor of the orchestra, 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. Castrata and coloratura parts remain extremely difficult even for contemporary singers and countertenors. So we had to work with the best musicians to show that his music is truly exceptional.
How did you get such a large budget, by Czech standards, of 5.5 million euros ($5.5 million)?
It was very difficult. I don’t think it’s the biggest budget Czech movie ever, but it sure looks big for a Czech movie. However, the film is set in Italy and in the 18th century, and such a setting requires a large budget. Given the cost of period dramas and of the music we recorded live, my budget is actually very small.
How long did you work on this movie?
I received a scholarship from the French Academy in Rome in 2010. I took a year and a half to study and do research in the archives. Writing the script took another year. While trying to raise money for the film, I wrote and shot three feature films and one documentary. Shooting was supposed to start in 2019, but money and COVID slowed us down time and time again.
Tell us about filming real opera stars? Do they have a different kind of acting skill than big or small actors?
I enjoy working with all kinds of actors, both non-professionals and experienced great actors. The opera singers in “Il Boemo” only played opera singers on stage, so they were in roles they knew very well. The only exception was the tenor who played one dialogue scene after his performance. He really enjoyed it. He is very good on screen.
Why is this film relevant to today’s audience?
I think Josef’s story about becoming an artist, about his desire to give a real purpose to his own life, to achieve a kind of artistic freedom, is a story that is timeless. And then there’s the beauty of the costumes and sets. It’s also always exciting to discover great music from a forgotten composer, someone who deserves to be known.
How much, in your opinion, do the costumes contribute to the film?
The costumes are extremely important, as is the entire visual aspect of the film. I wanted to make a beautiful film, but I also wanted it to be a film that was free from the conventions of so many period dramas.
What are you most satisfied with in the finished project?
It’s really exciting to have the chance to premiere the film at Competition in San Sebastián. And to represent the Czech Republic in the Oscar race.
What do you do next?
I have several projects: I have another period piece in the works. It’s a women’s story. I have a science fiction movie in French or English. I have bigger and smaller budget projects in Italian, French and English. I have a lot of plans, but for now I want to focus on ‘Il Boemo’ and help it find a worldwide audience.