Moving testament to the power of art. Inspired `Tosca's Kiss' documents lives of retired opera luminaries

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GIUSEPPE Verdi built a Milanese palace called Casa Verdi near the end of his life. Funded by royalties from his music, it has operated since 1902 as a retirement home for Italian opera musicians. Last year the noted Swiss filmmaker Daniel Schmid had the inspired idea of documenting the faded splendors of this building and its occupants. Avoiding the twin pitfalls of lazy sentiment and clinical coolness, he has produced a deeply moving and remarkably entertaining study -- one of the best movies ever made on the subjects of music, old age, and the capacity of art to sustain and uplift the human spirit.

``Tosca's Kiss'' takes advantage of the similarities between cinema and opera, two elaborate and synthetic branches of show business. Like the aging singers and players his film focuses on, director Schmid roams the hallways and living quarters of Casa Verdi at a leisurely pace, relishing chance encounters and coaxing each acquaintance to share whatever memories, histories, or fantasies come to mind.

And the residents respond as no other people would, cheerfully treating the unexpected camera as an extension of the opera stage that most of them lost direct contact with many years ago. They chat, they reminisce, they improvise with words and music alike. And at a few splendid moments they throw all vestiges of caution to the wind and ham it up like the unstoppable troupers they've spent their lives becoming.

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One key to the success of ``Tosca's Kiss'' is Schmid's ability to translate his personal fascination with the Casa Verdi crowd into tactful and sensitive visual terms. One example is a profoundly touching scene with Sara Scuderi, an aging diva who becomes a central figure in the film. Seated at a table bearing a phonograph, she listens to a recording she once made, her eyes shining with emotion and her voice rising quietly in song during favorite passages. Schmid's camera shares her mingled joy, w istfulness, and nostalgia without intruding on them. Moving gently toward her and stopping at a discreet distance, it takes us into her heart while avoiding any hint of rudeness or exploitation.

In his notes on the film, Schmid acknowledges his longtime interest in ``smuggling things back and forth . . . across the faltering line between the actual and the dream, between reality and imagination.'' The residents of Casa Verdi are ideal accomplices in this artistic mission, being performers by profession and dreamers by nature -- to the point where they are sometimes unsure where dreams leave off and true recollections begin.

``Tosca's Kiss'' is sturdy and informative as a sociological study, detailing the lives of retired artists and capturing such eccentricities as their disdain for current opera (which never measures up to their remembered standard) and their penchant for manufactured memories, grand entrances, costumery, and the like. On a deeper level, though, ``Tosca's Kiss'' is something much greater: a testament to the power of art and its exalting effect on lives that embrace it without

stinting.

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