Koch Vision // 1999 // 117 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jesse Ataide (Retired) // January 26th, 2006
"A Modern Visual Interpretation of Handel's Masterpiece"
Over the years, Handel's "Messiah" has come to define what Christmas is for me. It's a breathtaking musical achievement, and I look forward to attending a live performance at least once every Christmas season. So when this "modern visual interpretation" came to my attention, I inevitably had to take a look -- especially since the cover displayed a pair of female underwear (!).
Since Handel himself made numerous changes to his composition of "Messiah" over his lifetime, there is no definitive musical text for the oratorio, which allows for great variation in the way "Messiah" can be performed. For this particular version, director William Klein (Muhammad Ali, the Greatest) has opted to skip the numerous recitatives (the several lines of scripture sung by soloists between every song), and instead opts to include more songs to the second and third acts ("The Passion" and "The Resurrection" sections) than is typically included in live performances of "Messiah."
Obviously, the musical construction of Messiah is much less interesting than celebrated photographer-turned-documentary filmmaker Klein's sophisticated construction of visual images to accompany the music. What Klein develops is an unlikely marriage of Baroque music and contemporary social commentary, and this careful blending of the sacred with the potentially profane is inspired, making for a much more profound and moving film experience than even I had expected.
For example, the sublime strains of "For Unto Us a Child is Born" is first sung by a group of male inmates at an unidentified prison, and as their enthusiastic but unrefined voices give way to the glorious vocalization of the professional choir conducted by Marc Minkowski, the song is paired with images taken of daily life in jail for these men, effectively transforming the line "and the government shall be upon His shoulders" from ancient Christian prophecy to a scathing critique on the American criminal justice system. This constant reinterpretation of the lyrics (which are taken directly from the scripture) into contemporary terms sometimes comes off as obvious and heavy-handed ("Why Do the Nations So Furiously Rage Together" is rather predictably paired with gut-wrenching images of human atrocity), but most of the time it's an exhilarating twisting of the original lyrics to make a pointed political statement (the Las Vegas Baroque Chorale singing the lines "all rise/ say unto the cities of Judah: behold your God!" in the entrance of a glittering casino is deliciously subversive).
Thankfully, both the image and the audio track, which are particularly important when viewing a film of this nature, are uniformly excellent. Though the quality of the image varies throughout the film, it is due to the difference in quality of the assembled footage and various film clips. Additionally, the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround is just what is needed to envelope the viewer into the rapturous strains of Handel's music (so why would one bother with the 2.0 track, even though it is quite fine as well?). Intertitles constantly appear throughout the entire film, but there are no subtitles in any language; unfortunately, no extras are included. It would have been nice to at least have some background on Klein and his prolific output in both the realm of both photography and cinema, but alas, no bonus features are to be found.
Fans of Handel's "Messiah" will find this film of much interest, as Klein certainly makes one constantly reevaluate the music and lyrics. In many ways the oratorio feels new and fresh and exciting again, which is no small feat for songs which have become little more than clichés. Those who are not necessarily fans of classical music may also find much to appreciate here simply in regards to the social commentary and sheer visual splendor of the film.
But most of all, kudos to William Kline for daring to reevaluate Handel's masterpiece, and for discovering a way to not only make a personal statement, but make it seem relevant and accessible for a modern audience as well. It may be a minor achievement, but in its own way, it's an amazing one.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 117 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* William Klein Photography
* William Klein Biography