by Sam Juliano
It is rare for one to conclude that a title sequence is the most unforgettable component in a film that offers so much more, and succeeds admirably on practically every level. Yet this is precisely the case with Ismael Merchant and James Ivory’s ravishing period piece A Room with a View (1985) based on the beloved 1908 novel of the same name by E. M. Forster. Over the sublime vocals of soft-toned soprano Kiri TeKanawa, who delivers an incomparable reading of Giacomo Puccini’s great aria “O Mio Babbino Caro” from Gianni Schicchi, the third part of the composer’s triptych opera Il Trittico, we are treated to the sumptuous watercolor illustrations by Florentine artist Folco Cianfanelli. Ornate shapes, patterns and designs accompany the peace meal scrolling of the film’s actors and craftsmen, but more importantly this collaboration of aural and artistic elements render the film a sensory as well as narrative appeal. The Forster hook was there, it was up to Merchant and Ivory to craft the proper sensibilities. In any case the affinity for Puccini did not end with the beloved credit aria, as the big kiss in the Italian fields was immeasurably boosted by the intoxicating “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” from the composer’s La Rondine, also voiced by the inimitable Ms. Te Kanawa. The number is revisited in part by way of orchestration in other parts of the film. When Puccini isn’t dominating the soundtrack in his traditional take no prisoners manner -his two arias accentuate the richness of the setting and the romantic underpinning of the story- the Merchant/Ivory stock company composer Richard Robbins brings his own considerable measure of lyricism that is perfectly attuned to the score’s operatic hook. As far as the aforementioned credit sequence is concerned it should be noted that the same design is interspersed throughout the film in the manner of chapter titles.
It could certainly be argued that Forster’s Howard’s End and A Passage to India are more complex novels with a wider breadth, but by way of delight and engagement A Room with a View may hold poll position in his canon. The novel is an Edwardian comedy of manners with some acidic wit that is magically transformed on the screen from what seems like a light and frivolous enterprise into something much more soulful in its rapturous appreciation of Italy’s scenic resplendence. It wound up influencing a host of other films like Enchanted April and Under the Tuscan Sun, but on the strength of it’s writing, cinematography, music, set design and especially it’s cast it is the best in it’s sub-genre. (more…)