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By Merle Bertrand | February 9, 2003

I don’t have a lot of patience for operas to begin with, but I can at least appreciate how difficult it must be to stage or perform in one. And when seen the way it’s intended to be seen, namely live and on stage, there is a certain unmistakable spectacle to an opera that’s hard not to appreciate. Yet, an opera based on the unlikely subject matter of the 1985 hijacking of the “Achille Lauro” luxury liner and the subsequent murder of its wheelchair-bound America passenger Leon Klinghoffer by Palestinian terrorists strike me as just plain weird. Yet, John Adams conceived of just such an opera with “The Death of Klinghoffer,” which understandably generated a great deal of controversy upon its opening. Director Penny Woolcock has added another layer to all this strangeness with her motion picture adaptation of that same opera. May no one ever do such a thing again.
To her credit, Woolcock didn’t merely just film the opera…which come to think of it, might have been a preferable option. Instead she uses standard movie conventions to film something that looks very much like a movie. And that’s part of the problem. Because every time the audience starts to get drawn into the story and begins to feel the terror of those on board, say, someone starts singing. This absolutely ruins the moment, which is kind of a bad thing, given that this is supposed to be an opera. For one thing, most of the singing is virtually unintelligible due to the film’s horribly muddy sound mix, leading to crucial narrative information being lost. For another, Woolcock’s decision to “update” the opera with scenes of the hijackers, circa 2001, participating in the repression of Muslim women, feels extremely tacked on and serves only to distract from the main story.
The only parts of this film that work are the several black and white flashbacks depicting the forced exile of Palestinians following the creation of the State of Israel. These are compelling sequences, which provide some context for Palestinian rage and balance out the “bad guy” image a little bit.
As especially relevant as stories about terrorism or the Arab-Israeli conflict are today, even those that deal with events that are nearly two decades old, a straightforward narrative of this tragedy would have been a much more advisable way to go. While the opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” seems like a dubious enough proposition to begin with, turning that opera into a movie was just an all around bad idea.

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