30. Uluslararası Film Festivali 2-17 Nisan 2011 Close
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Visconti or the history of a distance

You are looking at, from up close, to the small stranger riding a stalk of hay in one of the small whirlpools that have formed on the surface of the calm body of water. You imagine the inner world of the creature struggling, resisting, striving to sail its raft against the current. You seek its fears. You think why it is there, or where it will go. Was it born here? To the branches of which weed will it cling to make land? Or, from whence has it come here? Pull away a little from your creature, and take another look. This is the shore of a river. Trees have now entered your frame. And children flinging hay onto the shore. The surface of the water is covered with small whirlpools, but it appears calm, and flows quietly on. From far away, the currents have dragged logs down through narrow straits. Go even higher, up onto the hills. From whence could the stranger have come from? What kind of a childhood did he spend in one of the reservoirs that hold water for years? Keep looking, carefully, at length, through different seasons. See, now the deep river of time has joined its bed with yours. Now you also see the grand river that brings the golden leaves of memories and rotten seaweed of pains, the mute fish of death and the slippery oysters of lovemaking, the lattice of clashes that always follow the one and same direction, and the corn pages of science, the flags of ancient wars and the messenger birds of insurrections, the rustle of satin that wraps moonlit breasts, blood, death and the executioner’s axe, the ugly side of golden coins featuring a seal, the ashes of burnt-down cities, the long poem of thought inscribed on the marble skin of civilisations and the triple-pronged fork of history, and the river flows it all in to meet with the bloody sea of the present day, as unironed as a boxer’s face.

Now approach once again the shore of the river. Look again to the small stranger, come up very close. You will see its face light up with the illumination of all the images in your head. It is a human being among humans. Place him in the vista in your mind. You will find its true place in the middle of rivers flowing away and the broad earth. You will find his past, even if no one tells you his story. You are not a “sibyl” but you will find you can read the future as if it were the palm of your hand, and with no help from God.


His adventure atop the stalk of hay will gain at least as much meaning as your own. Because you managed to look at him and his environment from the hills of the mountain overlooking the river for the period of a lifetime. Although you are quite close to people and everything, you carry distance within you.

Now describe what you see on this face. Slowly, making your words count, savouring the poetry and without forcing anyone to sermonize, describe. In your voice, the small lines of the face, the plain depictions of the shore, the everyday adventures of your human being will clasp each other with pleasure like the altos, tenors and sopranos of a Renaissance madrigal. Describe his pains, joys, encounters, and fights… All that familiar stuff. Throw in his extraordinary passions, may the whimpering of the Prince of Venosa cut in. Then, feel it all as you describe the fishermen of Aci Trezza, the millennial sun of Sicily, Ancona and the Po Valley, the shores of the canals of Venice full of leaves blown in by the wind and Countess Livia Serpieri, snow falling to the sound of the harpsichord, night hounds wandering silently, the murmur of the streets of Milan where violence and insecurity have shattered those beautiful human faces to smithereens, the crystal tingle of Palermo palaces, the silken rustle of fading flowers, jazz screams melding in with Bel Canto, the hunting horns and the pipes of war, the great fresco of massacres and ruins coming into leaf amidst laments, the deep crunch of Volterra as it withers away, and the silence of absence that adds a tragic significance of memory to everything. Whatever you describe, all these voices will echo in your plain song.

And so, what you have just described is the history of distance.


A Sicilian, in his extraordinary language, tells the story of a fisherman among fishermen in Aci Trezza, the story of old ‘Ntoni. The lyric taste of folk poets permeates his voice. I Malavoglia tells the story of ‘Ntoni Malavoglia’s son who died at sea, the five children he left behind, his sunken boat, and how he lost his grandchildren, one by one, at wars and in vulgar hands, his formidable effort to remain standing, and his defeat. In La Terra Trema, however, everything changes. The old ‘Ntoni is a meek man, a man who lives in shadows. A young face drives the entire story: His son, ‘Ntoni Valastro. A contemplative, affectionate face. He, too, is a fisherman among fishermen. But his experience teaches him something new at every step. And he is not alone. Dawn breaks. A small fisherman’s town in the Catania region. Fishing boats returning… Wholesalers waiting along the shore like packs of hyenas. They collect all the fish in return of Italian banknotes as broad as sheets, those with the smallest figures on them. And ‘Ntoni, among the poor, weak fishermen who resentfully scan the large trawlers that strip the sea bed in the open. The fishermen are not alone in their misery. Hundreds of miners demonstrating in front of the Caltanisetta police station demand the boss that has fired them. And a young man in his thirties, the skin on his face tanned dark in the pits, Cataldo, fights to change his fate. One morning, as they think about their captive love with his lover Angela, suddenly, a single gunshot is heard from the distant valley. This is the first signal for the villagers rising up against the Mafia, who serve the landowners. Villager Sarrazin, miner Cataldo and fisherman Antonio, each of them on their own, fight to change their conditions of living. These struggles fought on separate fronts will be wounded with defeats until they unite.

Luchino Visconti of Milan, the young historian of distance, could translate only a part of this long tale he thought of telling based on Verga’s novel. For months, he lived in a small fisherman’s town in Sicily. Whatever you did to get to know the small stranger on the river shore, he did the same to get to know fisherman Antonio and his family. He followed the methods of old historians and sociologists. Before each scene, he asked his people: “What would you do under such circumstances in your everyday life? What would you say?” He depicted all his characters with slow, attentive, poetic images upon the white sheet of the silver screen. Luchino, the son of the Duke of Modrone, found all that is beautiful in the rough lives of fishermen. The images of La Terra Trema took their place among the most beautiful in film history. These images possess not the artificiality of the images of Paisa conveyed in the style of newsreel films so they blend with reality; but the depth of Leonardo’s darkened paintings that accumulate the lives of distant times along with the rocks and rivers of distant hillsides that leave the impression that they have been laboured over for centuries. I once observed an Eastern sculptor in the dark room of a “cinèmathéque”, his beard shimmering with excitement as he watched Paul Strand and Fred Zinnemann’s immortal film Redes. It is difficult to imagine a heart that does not tremble deeply when watching La Terra Trema. But such hearts do exist. The producers sabotaged the film while it was still in production. When it was completed in 1952, Franco-London Film cut half of La Terra Trema. The three-hour film was reduced to 102 minutes. The Sicilian dialect used in dialogues was changed. The “Sicilian language” Visconti described as “the language of the poor” was held back, but not the language of images. The earth still trembles.


When you enter the Donnafugata Church, renovated from stem to stern for Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) through the shady and narrow gate of the sleepy Sicilian sky splintered by the raw sun and ripping trumpets, you will see a row of pale faces leaned against the walls like statues of dead saints listening to the dusty sounds of the organ for centuries. Don Fabrizio, the Prince of Salina, with his mane flushing out from below his cheeks, his gigantic head, huge hands, and both powerful and thoughtful gaze; Princess Maria Stella, trying to conceal the exceedingly narrow questions of her heart within her small and unpleasant face; nephew Tancredi Falconeri, the seducer who covers the sarcastic and selfish look on his face with a black strap, injured while fighting shoulder to shoulder with the Garibaldi vagabonds for the fame, wealth and dominance of the future; and the shy daughters of Prince Fabrizio, tired of darting around like domesticated birds in the palace that is their cage: Carolina, Concetta, Caterina; and the elder sons, who stroll around waving the tail ends of their beautiful clothes around like pompous penguins: Paolo and Francesco Paoio; and then the younger children, the governesses and the others...

These faces, covered in the silent ashes of death, will blossom for one last time like an infinitely coloured but lifeless flower as evening descends on Palermo palaces, and as dawn breaks they will close forever. Social classes die slowly.

It is not Prince Fabrizio di Salina who is dying in The Leopard. It is the class of aristocracy, buried in the misprint-strewn bloody pages of the Risorgimento, in elegant coffins made of Limoges porcelain, embroidered in golden leaf with arms of coats featuring leopards and tigers. And like every death, it is an irreversible process. Reading history will prove insufficient to comprehend this slow, meaningful and complex death. The artist must possess the power to elevate this era to the level of experience, an era when the bourgeois that will follow in their wake gnaws into all the colours, leaves and living flesh and leaves only a dry skeleton behind. I recall a morning from the novel. The prince is at the breakfast table with his wife and children. The author of the novel, Count Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa describes this breakfast in a vivid, exhaustive manner, as if he were reliving one of the thousands of mornings of his long years of childhood: the smell of the tea, the porcelain cups embroidered with coats of arms, day light filtering through the heavy curtains, the prince pulling the leg of those present at the table with his huge leopard paws concealing his fingernails. Then a midafternoon from the film. In the guests’ kiosk of the Donnafugata Palace, an abandoned, dusty and luminous hall. The yellow mid-afternoon sun reflecting upon the skin of Tunisian Claudia Cardinale (or, Angelica) in her light purple clothes, the colour of African violets, casts shadows on the deep courtyard of the palace. Two lovers, for a moment, lean over and look out at the courtyard. Doves, and the representative of the king, Cavalier Chevalley passes by with his briefcase in hand. This, is a moment. One among thousands of small moments that form the long arc of the day with tiny vortexes.

When the plump blood of experience is not reflected in images, distance no longer serves a purpose. The Leopard is the complex dialectics of morning and mid-afternoon. The madrigal has been replaced by the “fugue”. The rising sun and the dying day keep chasing each other. At times, they mingle to such an extent that, the living and the dying, and the streets of the small hours wrinkle and darken like the twilight of evening. The lively morning prayers immediately bring on a young corpse to the garden. The customs of an emergent social class appear beyond the fading walls of mid-afternoon. The Leopard is a long enchainment. The noiseless death of the face of the Prince of Salina and his milieu is superimposed with Tancredi’s new epaulettes and the badly shaved cheeks of Don Calogero. Lampedusa’s novel leaves the reader with an impression somewhere between Proust and Stendhal. The characters at the ball are reminiscent of the receptions and dances for which Swann frequently creates opportunities to attend so he can see Odette. Stendhal’s radiant atmosphere, and the warmth that permeates Italian folk stories also envelop the novel. The film, to use Lampedusa’s words, introduces into the individual universe of the novel, the harsh, critical and socialist method of “the bearded Jew who during those years, in Germany, proposed bizarre ideas on society and economics”. However, the mood of the novel is not lost. The structure is “narrative” rather than dramatic.

And The Leopard is a great fresco. It depicts a thinking man before the endless ruins of the streets of Palermo, full of flags, gunpowder smoke, and weeping women: “What has changed?” The answer, I guess, is in another painting. Greuze’s painting, at a ball suffering from increasing degeneration and the loss of its colours, beside a hall full of urinals and sweaty faces, transporting a wall to a far, far away place, to the indistinct judgements of thought: “The Death of the Just Man”. What has changed is the circumstances of the prince, and his milieu. Every image of the film recounts this historical process to us with unforgettable colours. This is a delicately written history. When, as dawn breaks, the navy blue satin of the sky turns into an ashen cloth, gunshots are heard from afar. The tired prince turns around to look for a moment. What he senses is what we know. The struggle continues, and will continue. Nothing changes, because everything changes.


“Vaghe Stelle deli’ Orsa, io non credea
Tornare ancor per uso a contemplarvi
Sul paterno giardino scintillanti,
E ragionar con voi dalle finestre
Di questo albergo ove abitai fanciullo,
E delle gioie mie vidi la fine.”

“Glimmering stars of the Great Bear,
I never thought I’d be back to see you
Shining down on my father’s garden,
Nor talk to you ever again from the windows
Of this house where I spent my childhood
And saw the last of my childhood vanish.”

The dreams of societies are about the future. Only individuals can dream childhood dreams. The golden cups of “plebeians” are now empty. But at the foot of the fading Roman and Etruscan ruins, at a castle in Volterra, Electra still contemplates with a cup of bitter wine before her. Hers is a “thought of absence”. Who can now dream about seeing, once again, the dim stars of a father’s home, without thinking about absence? Everything is fading, crumbling, collapsing. Everything that attaches her to her old land slips away at infinite speed. The mother depressed, the father long passed away, and the brother drowning in the corridors of an irremediable passion. The film is a “small piece of chamber music” that has somehow remained amidst all this noise. Just like the “musical phrase” Proust touches upon in Swann in Love. At Mme. Verdurin’s, the moment the little pianist begins to play, the “musical phrase” akin to the taste of fragrances.

It is for good reason that Visconti has chosen Cesar Franck. Here, precisely like the striking “zoom-outs” in the film, Visconti suddenly pulls away. The sons of Jacob, Moses and Abraham have lost their long beards and strong muscles, but they continue to rule over the entire surface of the earth. A Hebrew passing through Etruscan cities settles there. He uses secret methods to make himself accepted, like any stranger. In the end, a madman, a grandchild of Siegfried destroys him. But his presence is felt throughout the film, over his wife, son and daughter.

Vaghe Stelle is about sensual tenderness. At the bottom of the dim cistern, two puddles slowly flow towards each other, like childhood days. When the skin of Sandra, as beautiful as an Etruscan statute, goes beyond the trellis of her clothes woven with leaves, the other, the one closest to her, clings to her like ivy twisting around a stairwell. This is secret and uninterrupted joy. It extends into the dark corners of guilt. Its conclusion… Absence, no doubt. Gianni increasingly becomes a cynical, pitiful, hypocritical person. There was something he sought after. In the end he found nausea, and a creeping, filthy death.

Visconti says he drew upon “Kammerspiele”. It is as if he made the film to watch in his own room. Visconti’s filmography is a long journey from the hills to the stranger on the shore of the river. From the Aci Trezza fishermen to the inner universe of a city-dweller. He departs from the world outside to approach the contradictions and problems in his own heart. So you, too, after all this, approach the stranger on the shore. I believe he is someone you will recognize: A human being among human beings. Someone called Luchino Visconti. At present, he is looking at Camus’s Stranger.

Onat Kutlar