NEW YORK - The negative of a feature-length film is typically treated with the utmost care, preserved meticulously to produce prints and DVDs. After slaving over his film for six years, however, Paolo Cherchi Usai did the unthinkable: he destroyed it.
Usai doesn't want "Passio" to ever be distributed in theaters or released on DVD - and he burned the negative to ensure that. He made only seven prints for viewings to be accompanied by a live orchestra and chorus providing the score: Arvo Part's "Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Secundum" ("Passion of the Christ").
"This is a different animal," said Usai. "I wanted to make something where every experience will be radically different from another experience.
"Passio" was to make its U.S. premiere on Friday evening at - far from a multiplex - the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. It arrives with much anticipation as part of the Tribeca Film Festival after being performed only once before, in Australia, where famously an audience member fainted.
Filmmakers including Werner Herzog and Ken Burns have lauded "Passio" as a masterpiece. Herzog has said he advocates sending it into outer space as a representation of human life, alongside Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."
Burns has said, "It seeks to do what most films and filmmakers shrink from: make a statement about all and everything; about who we are, where we have been and where we are going."
Speaking after a dress rehearsal Thursday night, Usai lamented that the fainting incident has been exploited as a "silly publicity stunt," but he was otherwise in high spirits having seen his film performed in the massive cathedral.
"Passio" was shown by a 35-millimeter projector stationed behind the church's altar. It was projected approximately 500 feet down the cathedral's center onto its back wall. It will be performed for a seating of 900 people three times at St. John's over the weekend, and twice at Trinity Church.
The Trinity Choir, the Caleb Burhans Ensemble and the Evangelist Quartet played beneath the large screen.
"I'm advocating the identity of the analog experience," said Usai, who also wrote a book titled in its English translation from the Italian, "The Death of Cinema." "It is a memorial to a different kind of visual perception. ... The digital experience gives you something else."
Describing "Passio" isn't easy. For it, Usai, the director of Australia's National Film and Sound Archive, compiled fragments of obscure film.
It's described by the festival as "a dramatic meditation on the act of seeing." Footage appears only fleetingly, timed to the music, and interspersed by blackness or film stock that flows with calligraphy. The viewer is always self-conscious, unable to forget that they're watching a movie.
Much of the silent film contains disturbing imagery: the skull of a black man being measured by white scientists, a woman's seizure, the scraping of an eyeball. Footage was assembled that depicted, the film's press materials describe, "our neglected or repressed collective memory."
Film frames, reels and projectors are often shown, as well. This sets up a parallel: an eyeball is scraped in the same way a negative is.
"I wanted to make a film to compare the way we deal with moving images and the way we deal with human life," said Usai. "When we create and destroy moving images, I think we are in both cases acting a bit lighthearted. We are not aware of the moral responsibility."
"I see the art of viewing as an ethical matter."
Usai believes moving images - which are created (and thus disposed of) more rapidly than ever before - should be cared for, but not preserved obsessively.
"Film was never meant to be permanent. Film was born as something ephemeral. I consider film more as a performing art than an art of reproduction," he said.
There are few predecessors to "Passio," which elevates the score to a level at least equal, if not superior, to the image. The Francis Ford Coppola produced, Godfrey Reggio directed 1982 film "Koyaanisqatsi" memorably combined montage and classical musical for effect. The 2002 film "Decasia" was constructed out of decaying archival footage set to a symphonic score.
"Passio" was brought to the attention of the Tribeca programmers after it showed at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado last year. There, though, it was shown without live music and meant as only a preview of the intended experience.
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