A Butterfly and the Smiling Martyr

There’s a butterfly winging into the image in Vittorio De Sica’s La ciociara as Jean-Paul Belmondo and Sophia Loren are hiding behind the stone wall of a bridge. A German sidecar is racing towards them on the road, but they promptly fade into the shadow of the barrier. The butterfly doesn’t take the risk, it quickly changes direction and drifts away before the car appears. The butterfly doesn’t share the image with the military vehicle. A tender, heart-warming coincidence, coming and going with the wind, a coincidence that can only happen in cinema. Later, Belmondo and Loren get lucky again and survive a bombing; this time, the camera intentionally catches a ladybug climbing through the grass. The tranquillity of insects only draws our attention for brief seconds: the film is loud, robust and hopeless, depicting the last years of World War II in Italy through the story of a widowed mother, Cesira – played by the high-spirited and constantly grimacing Loren – and her daughter, Rosetta, who try to find shelter in Cesira’s native village after the bombing of Rome.

There, they meet Michele, a young man characterized by his burning faith in literature and the peasantry, his reverence for sincerity and the Bible and his unrelenting criticism of both his own community and the world he would never see. His dignity and moral concerns are not taken seriously by his environment, which regards his youthful temperament with impatience. His eyesight is so weak that when he accidentally sees Rosetta naked, Cesira comforts her daughter by saying that Michele can barely see anyway. He is played by Belmondo, who hadn’t interiorized his persona yet and was able to nuance Michele’s explosive, insecure and profusely kind movements and gestures. He stands with his back to Cesira, whom he secretly adores and looks far away while contemplating his past vocation of becoming a priest. Maybe it was indeed my vocation and that’s why I shouldn’t do it, Michelle adds. He is anxiously crumpling Rosetta’s history book that he took from her to make a speech about the ignorance of schools. When Cesira asks him about girls, he gets uncomfortable and painfully giggles. Two fascists turn up, they tell Michele about the arrest of Mussolini and threaten to kill him. He only smiles at them, standing in a truly priest-like posture. If it’s true, I can die happy. When a group of German soldiers take him to show them the quickest way through the mountains he also smiles. Everyone around him seems to understand what will follow.

Michele is neither a holy fool, nor a consequent ideologist. In his hasty arguments, overt generosity, his prudent reading from the Bible, his clumsy romantic attempts and faraway moments of staring at flowers and ladybugs, Michele incorporates that transitional state between a child and an adult, between self-imposed austerity and the desire to live. He doesn’t know when to change directions as routinely as the butterfly, but they’re similar in their delicacy.

Jean-Paul Belmondo became a little too cool, virile and muscular for Michele over the decades. Yet, with different motivations and in different clothes, he kept looking for the truth in idiosyncratic ways; he was even a priest once. The innocent smile had also altered over time but he continued to preserve his pride whenever he would walk towards death again.

Revelation

“What’s this? Am I falling? My legs are giving way,“ thought he, and fell on his back. He opened his eyes, hoping to see how the struggle of the Frenchmen with the gunners ended, whether the red-haired gunner had been killed or not and whether the cannon had been captured or saved. But he saw nothing. Above him there was now nothing but the sky – the lofty sky, not clear yet still immeasurably lofty, with gray clouds gliding slowly across it. „How quiet, peaceful, and solemn; not at all as I ran,“ thought Prince Andrew – „not as we ran, shouting and fighting, not at all as the gunner and the Frenchman with frightened and angry faces struggled for the mop: how differently do those clouds glide across that lofty infinite sky! How was it I did not see that lofty sky before? And how happy I am to have found it at last! Yes! All is vanity, all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing, but that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but quiet and peace. Thank God!…”

Lev Tolstóy: Voyna i mir (translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude)

To the Marrow: Powidoki by Andrzej Wajda

Autonomy and resistance are characterized by vigour, drive and tension in many of Andrzej Wajda’s films. His actors shout, dance and rush. They have no knowledge of relief, no break from this intensity: dense humidity lies heavily on them. Every movement requires a concentrated will, and once set in motion, a halt makes it harder to get going again, like a red light that obstructs the runner. They are in spasm, pain, despair and ecstasy. Popiół i diament, Człowiek z marmuru and Danton, their leading actors, Zbigniew Cybulski, Krystyna Janda, Wojciech Pszoniak or Jerzy Radziwiłowicz exemplify this clash of energies that takes place in an environment too oppressed to fully explode. 

However, stripped of his Baroque pomp and feisty loudness, Wajda also filmed resistance in a different vein. Plain compositions, calibrated colours and the contrast of the above-described excess mark this form. 

Old, disappointed, displaced and disabled people oppose quietly. Let down by the revolution he had participated in, Władysław Strzemiński (Bogusław Linda plays the inert and sloven painter in his twilight) is portrayed as such a person in Wajda’s final feature film, Powidoki. Recounting the last years of the artist in Stalinist Poland, the film concentrates on the quick takeover of power in the university and cultural life, and Strzemiński’s peculiar relation to it. There’s a dual quality to the consistency of his understated contrarianism. The circumstances get more and more ruthless, and while he appears to have a sharp understanding of totalitarianism and knew in each decisive situation whether to obey or not, he acts as if he hadn’t anticipated what’s coming to him. The images that indicate everyday life outside of the artist’s milieu align with Illyés Gyula’s everlasting description of tyranny. 

“(…) For it is in all you intend,/In Your to-morrow it is at hand,/Before your thoughts it is aware,/In your every movement it is there;//As water cleaves the river-bed/You follow and form it; but instead/Of peering from that circle anew,/Out of the glass it looks at you,// In vain you try to escape its wrath:/Prisoner and jailer, you are both;/It works its own corrosive way/Into the taste of your tobacco,//Into the very clothes you wear –/It penetrates you to the marrow;/You detach your sense from it, only to find/ No other thought will come to your mind. (…)”

//Egy mondat a zsarnokságról/A Sentence on Tyranny, translation by Vernon Watkins//

On the other hand, Strzemiński doesn’t seem to experience this. Despite enjoying theatrical gestures to impress his students, he never acts out or makes a scene until he is pushed to the cliff – there is a strong discontinuity in his conduct. The few scenes in-between conflicts show a man absorbed by creation and the maintenance of his elemental needs. More and more space is taken away from him up until the terminal minutes of neglect and hunger, yet, with the less and less he has at his disposal, he preserves an inner order, as if the reduction of air had no impact on him. Then, he confronts the perpetrators without any sense of danger. He has no interest in revolting or even encouraging his students. If he is forced to adapt, he objects and walks off. When he witnesses the devastation of his paramount achievement, the Sala Neoplastyczna, the room that also displayed the works of Katarzyna Kobro (Strzemiński’s ex-wife), he is surprised and carries on. He is neither apathetic nor motivated. He is principled and rational. Unlike in Wajda’s more lively characters, he is not fearless or led by heroism and valour – Strzemiński simply cannot stand any interference. He is uncompromising about art-making and remains intact, as long as possible. Without the slightest concern of the reaction, he cuts into the red drapery hanging in front his window during a parade but exclusively because it stands in the way of light while he is working. Then his rationality manifests (over heroism) and Strzemiński makes the effort to undertake a job as sign-painter. 

The film eventually infers Illyés’ truth. 

“(…) Because, where tyranny is,/Everything is in vain,/Every creation, even this/Poem I sing turns vain, (…)”

Strzemiński may look irresponsible; indifferent to his daughter and his students and unwilling to use his intellect and strength to inspire or help others. This curious case-by-case mode of hard-headed morality, which refuses to acknowledge the stream of violations, only functions if he is detached. 

Interpretations differ whether the film’s indirect meaning refers more to Wajda’s own trauma from the dictatorship or to the contemporary, right-wing despotism in Poland. Considering the further prevalence of superficial, pseudo-progressive movements since the film’s release, the disappointed and failed avant-garde and revolutionary brings other autocrats to mind. 

Regardless, there is something universal in Wajda’s and Linda’s rendition of Strzemiński: beyond the ostentatious rebels, there are other practitioners of autonomy; moderate and thoughtful. Though Strzemiński didn’t want to teach anything but art, his students could conclude a useful political stance from his example: dare to know, dare to individually assess, dare to trust common sense. 

 

From Donostia to Pasaia: Colours

Further down the road, as one passes by the stonewall, a turnout emerges. Even more than the trust in hiking trails, the excitement of the contrasting landscapes and the ocean attracts one towards the left. Under dense foliage, a tight alley leads to two different viewpoints; above, there is a rich variety of greens, a palette that intercepts light, obstructing growing grass, thus below, mottled grey awaits.

The first of the two lookouts is marked by its robust framing. A fracture in the line of rocks breaks open the ridge and one can see water. Disparate distances and colours complicate the experience as the rough, yellow surface of rock and its closeness intrude, prompting awareness of one’s gaze. It’s difficult not to get lost in the excess. The scream of seagulls grows sinister and leaves no question regarding the subject of attention. 

The second station offers a clearer image, its focus comes in handy because there, it takes a step to end things. It’s reasonable to step back and look up; there are no frames here, just the wide horizon. 

The overarching greens, craterous yellows and clean blues are accompanied by other colours, playfully bowing in the breeze. 

All this is subject to change of course, even in the same season, depending on the weather and light. Without the unruly drawn cliff on the periphery, the perception of the water’s surface is undisturbed at first glance. Yet, even with less facets, the profusion of sights is impossible to engross. Each square metre of the ocean displays a new shade and each wave suggests different depth. I speculate the latter with particular fondness, hoping that one day an ascending whale will darken the water where now a seamount appears. These impressions accentuate how tranquility can be swept away. Blue turns into grey in an instance. At its most peculiar, the storm has already absorbed the sky in front of me, while there is still clarity and immaculate brightness behind. The object underneath it will be lit and emerge in incomparable sharpness. An ephemeral phenomenon to observe.

In any event, it’s good to know that not only we do the observing.

photos by Babos Anna & Petri Simon

Inattentive Individualism: River of Grass by Kelly Reichardt

A film of offbeat humour, inert narration, yet with a creative and intense soundtrack, Kelly Reichardt’s River of Grass is an unchallenging, dynamic blend of idiosyncratic self-awareness and shallow characters, whose thoughtlessness and irresponsibility are framed as the reinvention of the wheel. A very effective condensation of the period’s and the subculture’s celebrated cliches in form, lifestyle and casting, its superficiality and hipness distinctly differ from Reichardt’s later films, building upon scorn and the grotesque distortion of a sloven and uninspiring environment. Drift has no denotation in the film, it doesn’t evolve as a utopian and hopeful pursuit, nor as a strife of necessity, because nothing is at stake for the drifters in question; they are destined for a series of mishaps and ridicule. Stripped of wanderlust romanticism or political ties, Reichardt also deprives her characters of chance, conceiving their failure without investigating the conditions that lead to it. 

So far, Cozy’s (the main character) life simply happens, without any intervention on her part – she is in a loveless marriage and didn’t develop an emotional connection to her children. She often entertains the thought of predetermination (without any depth) in light of her mother, who had abandoned her when she was a child. Eventually, she also hits the road, both the first decision she wilfully makes about her life and a surrender to predetermination. Cozy teams up with Lee, a character who is never confronted with the falseness of self-pity. Lee finds a dropped gun belonging to Cozy’s father (a detective), which fills him with boyish pleasure. An exemplary instance of the film’s humour, Lee points the gun at his grandmother (with whom he lives together) – as a consequence he is kicked out of the apartment. The sheer appearance of consequence is unexpected, because up to that point such gags exist without any dramatic root, reinforcing the notion that everyone is a maverick living in their own world. It’s not a turning point though – at the film’s narrative peak Cozy and Lee trespass on his high school teacher’s backyard and when he notices them, they unintentionally shoot him, an accident that sets off the film’s main theme, their desire for independence obstructed by their inescapable social exposure. As it happens, the teacher wasn’t even injured.

Like Cozy herself, River of Grass is inattentive – it establishes a serious personal crisis and resolves it in an inappropriately comical manner. Cozy’s indifference to her environment is matched by the simplification of her boredom. She wonders what makes a housewife murder, but the film has no perception of time and solitude: there is no insight into the infertile hours spent alone or in the annoying company of children, whereas Cozy firmly believes that such cessation of putting up with unbearable circumstances culminates into violence over a long time, little by little. Denying inner development, Reichardt gets over the situation in the blink of an eye, showing Cozy’s parody of gymnastic exercises in rapid editing and absurd framing that only strengthen the detachment from reality. The film doesn’t connect Cozy’s ineptness and lack of expression to the systemic web that denies her interest and passion. Instead, it presents the resulting flatness, her irritated grimaces and attempts at autonomy as stand-ins for an actual personality. Without exploration of feelings and intentions, Reichardt allows social and cinematic stereotypes to define Cozy and Lee. The sense of haste and impatience extends to the getaway as well. The banal slips that could render the motif practical and criticise its untruthful elevation in popular consciousness, cannot unfold because no obstruction is elaborated on in the accelerated and weightless stream of scenes. 

The voice-over indicates that Cozy and Lee are destined to be together, because they’re equally lonely. While it is never suggested that their individualism is a matter of choice, they relish ignoring others and if an undeserved incapability wasn’t imposed on them, Cozy and Lee could be outsiders without their self-absorbed despondence. At the same time, their strive for liberty is portrayed as a more valid and honest way of life, strongly contrasted with the jovial male solidarity that surrounds Cozy’s father, which is the only form of communal engagement in River of Grass, yet it provides him with nothing but the abstention of his real ambitions.

These very concerns made me reconsider the first segment of Certain Women, which I deemed the least lively and moving; now, I think of the dutiful attorney who in time of need overcomes her reluctance and tiredness, and I understand that the absence of excitement underpins the significance of responsibility.