A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
Werner Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo" is one of the great visions of the cinema, and one of the great follies. One would not have been possible without the other. This is a movie about an opera-loving madman who is determined to drag a boat overland from one river system to another. In making the film, Herzog was determined to actually do that, which is more than can be said for Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, the Irishman whose story inspired him.
"Fitzcarraldo" (1982) is one of those brave and epic films, like "Apocalypse Now" or "2001," where we are always aware both of the film, and of the making of the film. Herzog could have used special effects for his scenes of the 360-ton boat being hauled up a muddy 40-degree slope in the jungle, but he believed we could tell the difference: "This is not a plastic boat." Watching the film, watching Fitzcarraldo (Klaus Kinski) raving in the jungle in his white suit and floppy panama hat, watching Indians operating a block-and-tackle system to drag the boat out of the muck, we're struck by the fact that this is actually happening, that this huge boat is inching its way onto land -- as Fitzcarraldo (who got his name because the locals could not pronounce "Fitzgerald") serenades the jungle with his scratchy old Caruso recordings.
The story of the making of "Fitzcarraldo" is told in "Burden of Dreams" (1982), a documentary by Les Blank and Maureen Gosling, who spent time in the jungle with Herzog, his mutinous crew and his eccentric star. After you see the Herzog film and "Burden," it's clear that everyone associated with the film was marked, or scarred, by the experience; there is an impassioned speech in "Burden" where Herzog denounces the jungle as "vile and base," and says, "It's a land which God, if he exists, has created in anger."
"Fitzcarraldo" opens on the note of madness, which it will sustain. Out of the dark void of the Amazon comes a boat, its motor dead, the shock-haired Kinski furiously rowing at the prow, while his mistress (Claudia Cardinale) watches anxiously behind him. They are late for the opera. He has made some money with an ice-making machine, she is a madam whose bordello services wealthy rubber traders, and as they talk their way into an opera house, Fitzcarraldo knows his mission in life: He will become rich, build an opera house in the jungle, and hire Caruso to sing in it.