It is June, 1939, Europe stands on the brink of war. Italy, is firmly under the control of Benito Mussolini and has been since 1922. "Il Duce" centralized all power in himself as the leader of the Fascist party as he attempts to create an Italian empire. He had said, "Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State." Germany and Italy, reflecting their common interest in destabilizing (and conquering) Europe, announced a Rome-Berlin Axis one week after signing a treaty of friendship, "The Pact of Steel," in 1936. As the viewer knows from history, soon Mussolini's and Hitler's vision of empire will become a reality, a terribly lethal, monstrous reality.
In the midst of unnerving international tension, a disparate group of actors and filmmakers come together in Rome to make an epic movie based on Puccini's opera Tosca at the famous Cinecitta Studios. Davide Rietl, (Alfred Molina), the film's Jewish producer, is determined to see the project through before the war begins. He knows he needs to rush production as he has two strikes against him - anti-Semitism and homosexuality, which was declared to be illegal in 1931. Together with his director, Hungarian Lazlo Molnar, (Andras Balint), and star performers, renowned German actress, Kristina Baumgarten, (Catherine McCormack), and James Clavel, (Jonathan Pryce), the British leading man, they struggle to complete their movie despite pressure from the government, the banks, and the media to close down. The rest of the international cast and crew are equally as dedicated.
As filming proceeds, Davide is forced to use his art collection as collateral against a loan to solve the production's grave money problems. He is in love with rising Italian screen star, the heartbreakingly beautiful, Renzo Davario, (Rupert Friend), who fancies himself to be a staunch fascist despite his bi-sexuality. Kristina, whose husband is a high ranking Nazi, is pursued by an insane young man, a member of the Italian nobility, (Niccolo Senni). She and the morphine addicted James, begin to form a close romantic attachment. There are many, too many, subplots and sub-subplots to write about in one review.
Although a variety of critics panned this film, I wanted to see it because I am interested in the historical time period, film making in general, the opera Tosca, and Alfred Molina's work. I must say, many of the naysayers are correct in their assessment. I was/am disappointed in the movie. Given the catastrophe which the viewer knows lies ahead, the extent of the danger - the mounting pressure keg which is about to explode across Europe - is neither demonstrated nor felt. There is no real drama here, rather too much melodrama, especially in the overdone dialogue. The atmosphere lacks reality and tension. One of the various instances which strains credibility is when James, with his addictive personality, appears to suspend his craving for drugs and alcohol, for the duration of his romance with Kristina.
Director John Irvin's attempt to dramatize a film within a film within an opera is interesting, and at time it works, but the overall pace slows things down to the extent that I lost interest. Some of the overly dramatic episodes come across as comical, like when Tosca screams as her lover is shot, while Kristina belts out a mega-scream as her lover departs - her scream makes an ear-splitting duet with a loud train whistle - and of course, her love is aboard the train. I kept waiting for the title, "Moon and the Stars" to be used, perhaps to understand the underlying metaphor and the point of this work. I was amazed when various characters use "Moon and the Stars" in their dialogue, on various non-related occasions. I still do not know why the title was chosen or what it is supposed to mean.
On the plus side, the actual filming and editing of Tosca is a fascinating process to watch. The acting, although uneven, is good at times, and Jonathan Pryce's humor is delightfully wry. The cinematography is wonderful and some of the shots are reminiscent of "producer" Davide Rietl's paintings. I am not sorry I saw the movie, but I really cannot recommend it highly. There are better films out there to spend your time watching.