Film Beethoven becomes a legend of the small

January 27, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Beethoven's Fifth, according to Bernard Rose's "Immortal Beloved": Da-da-da-DUMB!

This convoluted, lush and glitzy film attempts to do for Herr Beethoven what Peter Shaffer and Milos Forman did for Herr Mozart 10 years back in "Amadeus." But it's somehow unlikely that "Immortal Beloved" will break the 42-week record that "Amadeus" set at the Senator, where it's playing exclusively, even with a new Sony SDDS digital sound system.

In fact, only as a sound- system platform is the movie worth the effort it takes to get there: The music, thrown in somewhat willy-nilly, hither and yon and catch as catch can, is still Beethoven, still mind-boggling in its power and its glory.

But the movie the soundtrack is attached to is a somewhat mousier matter. With the ubiquitous Gary Oldman as the maestro, the film yanks us through the detritus of the man's life. Like "Amadeus" (and "Citizen Kane," for that matter), it takes the form of a post-mortem investigation structured around a mystery.

It seems that when Beethoven died in 1827, a packet of letters was found hidden in his desk, addressed to his "Immortal Beloved," not named, and to her was left the estate. The movie takes this development -- hardly of the "Rosebud" or "I killed Mozart!" level of intensity -- as a jumping-off point, as Anton Schindler (Jeroen Krabbe), Beethoven's secretary, begins to wander Europe interviewing the women with whom the composer was "involved" in hopes of locating "I.B." and settling on her the wealth.

The identity of Immortal Beloved has long puzzled scholars, but most have disowned writer-director Rose's solution, which is novel rather than compelling; it feels very much as if he chose it merely because nobody else had, using what an exegete of mystery novels once called the "least likely suspect" gambit. Scholarship aside, the movie has serious dramatic lapses that make it more to be endured than savored.

For example, it differs from "Amadeus" on the issue of genius, which indisputably both Mozart and Beethoven were. The issue of "Amadeus" was genius: how this rude bumpkin of a boy could have put pen to paper or finger to keys and created, effortlessly, a musical reflection of the rapture of God. This in particular confounded the point-of-view character, Salieri, an epic mediocrity, and drove him, or so he claimed, to believe he murdered Mozart out of jealousy.

But "Immortal Beloved" doesn't have an attitude toward genius: It more or less takes Beethoven's possibly larger gift for granted. The movie never even wonders at the miracle of miracles that enabled the man to step effortlessly through a membrane and construct sound patterns of such density and sophistication that they tower above us and seem as titanic as the day they were written. It makes Beethoven just another musician.

Again, the film never relates, as did "Amadeus," the music to the life, except in one provocative moment. That is when it conjures up a psychological explanation for "Ode to Joy" as an expression of the young Beethoven's exaltation at escaping from an abusive father. The boy, escaping in the darkness (this transpires in memory), sets himself on a hill and feels himself somehow connected with the cosmos.

But far more typically, the music feels incidental to a life that is somewhat untidy in its relationships. The film seems to miss, also, what was remarkable about Beethoven beyond his talent: That was his dedication. He worked like a dog, day in, day out, living a life totally immersed in music. Though the film, a modern document aflicker with erotic energy, won't admit it, there's a good possibility he was a lifelong celibate whose religious exaltation of women prevented him from experiencing their fleshly pleasures (what an idiot, no?).

Rather, Rose insists on a Beethoven who is the Rod Stewart of his time, a room-trashing, concert-giving playboy roving tempestuously through Europe, having intense relationships with women, among them a young Italian noblewoman played by Valeria Golino and a Hungarian countess played by Isabella Rossellini.

Oldman seems somewhat more subdued than in his performances of late, but then he's not playing a total homicidal screwball, as in "The Professional" or "Murder in the First." But he hardly seems any more Germanic than he seems a genius; in fact, the performance is all rage and stubbornness but never achieves much in the way of clarity and never represents a consistent theory of the man.

In the end, one concludes we don't need Chuck Berry to tell Beethoven to roll over anymore. He's rolling over on his own, as a consequence of "Immortal Beloved."

"Immortal Beloved"

Starring Gary Oldman and Jeroen Krabbe

Directed by Bernard Rose

Released by Columbia

Rated R


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