". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Leopardi (Il giovane favoloso)

Wednesday we made the 1 PM screening at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater of Leopardi (Il giovane favoloso), produced, directed and co-scripted by Mario Martone, about Italy's still-beloved and venerated Romantic era poet and philosopher, Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837). I had been previously very impressed by Martone's 2011 historic film Noi credevamo (We Believed), which was about Mazzini and the Risorgimento.

Young Count Giacomo Leopardi

I highly recommend Leopardi  as a compelling experience. Cinematographically, the film is gorgeous. For someone interested in the history and culture of this era (think, Stendhal's Charterhouse of Parma set in this post-Napoleonic Italy) it's impossible to pull one's eyes away.

Having fun in Florence with Fanny, who breaks Giacomo's heart. Fanny sleeps with Ranieri, but the two men's friendship survives.
The film was shot on location, in the formative places of the poet's life and work: his birthplace in Recanati, Rome, Milan, Florence and Naples.

The last section is located in Naples, home to the family of  Giacomo's loyal and steadfast friend, historical novelist (the international influence of Sir Walter Scott, the father of historical fiction) and political activist, Antonio Ranieri.
Film Ranieri

Among the wonderful Naples street scenes, one night sequence is musically counterpointed by arabic melismatic singing supported by a hard pounding atabal. This single scene telegraphs enormous amounts of Naples's past and present, as currently North African Islamic immigration again pours its cultural influences into the boot of Italy. The conclusion of the film takes place outside the city, when they move to Torre Del Greco, the jumping-off place for 19th- century tourists going to visit Pompeii and Herculaneum.

From Wiki:
Torre del Greco is the largest city of the Vesuvius area, with about 104,000 inhabitants. It was destroyed several times after the Pompeii eruption in 79 and the last time in 1794 when the lava flow reached the sea, 7 kilometers from the crater. The town shown in the background was built on this lava after 1794.

This section of the film provides a spectacular Vesuvius eruption, which, I think, takes place in 1832 (the poet dies in 1837). We hear voice-overs of the poet declaiming his own poetry about the volcano, the mountain and the desertifcation of its slopes from periodic lava flows throughout, as earlier in the course of the film we've listened through many scenes of the poet's voice-overs during his earlier years in Recanati, Rome, Milan and Florence.

The English subtitles of these voice-overs are from CANTI / Poems / A Bilingual Edition, Giacomo Leopardi; Translated from the Italian and annotated by Jonathan Galassi, President and Publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (The New York Times review from 2010 can be read here.)  There were several lyrical addresses to the moon in the film. I cannot recall if this particular one was included -- I think it was -- but in any case this Galassi translation gives a good sense of the lunar glow that illuminates several scenes:

What are you doing, moon, up in the sky;
what are you doing, tell me, silent moon?
You rise at night and go, observing the deserts.
Then you set.
Aren't you tired of plying the eternal byways?
Aren't you bored?
Do you still want to look down on these valleys?
We whispered admiring comments (very quietly) to each other during the watching of the film, while continuing to watch the screen. This speaks to the intensity of the visual experience it provides. Turn away one's head and one has missed something splendid. We talked about Leopardi all through dinner -- which we had in a traditional New York southern Italian style restaurant across from Our Lady of Pompeii Church on Carmine Street.

Mario Martone in the Leopardi family library where Giacomo spent his  Recanati youth, in an isolated east coast region that was part of the Papal States; we can imagine then how his noble father then, regarded revolution, Napoleon's conquests and his abduction of the Pope. The old count raised his children according to Enlightenment principles while loathing revolutionary ideas and revering the Church. A poet would have no choice but to rebel.
Reading through the TOC and the Introduction of Giacomo Leopardi's Search for a Common Life Through Poetry: A Different Nobility A Different Love by Frank Rosengarten is a fast way to learn something of  who Giacomo Taldegardo Francesco di Sales Saverio Pietro Leopardi (1798 - 1837) was, and why he remains meaningful to Italians.

Rosengarten is particularly enlightening addressing the differences in the visions of nature between the Italian poet and the British Romantic poets. For Leopardi, nature is not necessarily a cleansing, healing power of the sublime, or at least not always. It frequently is powerfully, indifferently, malign and destructive, not only of man's works but of humanity itself. This is the inspiration of the lyric, "Wild Broom" or, "Flower of the Desert"  Leopardi wrote after removing to Naples, then to Torre del Greco, and witnessing an eruption of Vesuvius.

Mario Martone, who, grew up in Naples, understands what it is to live one's life with the gun of Vesuvius pointed at one's head. It's natural then too, that Leopardi, who shared such experiences of so many Italians, past and present, remains a significant force in Italian poetry and philosophy.

After the extensive credits for this logistical feat of film-making finished rolling, I stood a long time on line for the ladies' room, where women talking in Italian and English seemed to know Leopardi's poetry well, and were praising the film for the seamlesss working of his verse into the film's scene.

Paolina Leopardi

The criticism they expressed -- I think -- was connected to the film having given too little depiction of the women in Giacomo Leopardi's life. More screen time was given to prostitutes and the Florentine beauty, Fanny Targioni-Tozzetti, for whom he suffered unrequited love, than to the devotion of his own sister, and the sister of Ranieri -- both of them named Paolina, both of whom transcribed his writing, and who provided intellectual stimulus and unstinting adoration. The English language literary critics who have written of the poet, those at which  I've glanced, do seem to agree that he was a misogynist, which may have something to do with this criticism.

The poet suffered life-long from what was probably a kind of painful spinal tuberculosis, called Pott Disease.  This is enough to make anyone think that neither nature nor gods intend human life for happiness --  though the poet himself was infuriated by the assumption that it was his infirmity, not his intellect, that informed his irony, pessimism, doubt and passionate melancholy.

His poetic expression contains strong elements of what are now categorized in art and literature as "Gothic." It is more than possible his near contemporary Edgar Allan Poe (1809 - 1849) knew Leopardi's poetry, within which indifferent nature, and her handmaiden, death, oversee all. I can hear perhaps an echo of him in Algernon Charles Swinburne's (1837 - 1909), "The Garden of Proserpine," whose sound scheme melts each word into another, as death inevitably dissolves life:
 . . .Though one were strong as seven,
         He too with death shall dwell,
Nor wake with wings in heaven,
         Nor weep for pains in hell . . . 

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