The last thing I remember about my father was him walking away wearing his camel coat. I remember him from the back, his dark hair escaping from his hat.
It was Christmas evening and it was cold, for Rome at least. He had just accompanied me to a train, which I would take to reach my cousins in Calabria. He was not happy that I was leaving, and would die a few hours later. A stroke, the doctors said.
The following day I took the train back to Rome, to find the house full of smoking people and my mother crying. I was 15 and my grandparents were all alive: it felt unnatural, like a house with a Nativity scene, but with a coffin.
I went to the movies the day after the funeral: cinema was something that I had shared with my father; it was a way to still be with him. Or maybe I just wanted to leave my home, full of sad relatives and unknown friends; to be in a dark room with a different set of unknown people, watching a different life projected on a screen.
The film was The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. I was a fan of Mel Brooks and knew Young Frankenstein by heart. At the time I was unable to understand most of the jokes, but those films made me laugh with a pleasure that I never had again when I started understanding more.
I didn’t pay too much attention to the fact that Brooks was not the director: anything with Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, and Marty Feldman had to be hilarious.
A few minutes into the film I realized how unfunny it was, but for a couple of hours I lived another life. I had a deep, liberating laugh when an actor sang You’ve got your hands on my wife’s boobies.
Quite a silly line, but then it seemed irresistible, and in the darkness of that theater I felt the promise, or the illusion, of a perfect life, where pain disappears at the end of the screening while joy remains with you forever.
I experienced that same feeling every time I went to the movies in the following months, sometimes three times a day. I watched everything from the intimidating pictures of Ingmar Bergman to Robert Bresson (oh, that donkey that dies for all of us!), from Antonio das Mortes to Japanese films, preferring Kurosawa over Ozu. But more than anything else I watched American movies. The artistic revolution of New Hollywood seemed inspirational. Nothing made my heart beat faster than knowing of an upcoming release of a film by Scorsese, Spielberg, or Coppola. In the dark, I became a lonely taxi driver in a hellish nocturnal city, an ordinary man looking for something, or someone, that comes from the sky and changes our lives forever, and a war hero who is forced to become a Mafioso because everything else in the world is dirtier than his criminal family. I still can quote all the lines and imitate the gestures of the actors. I felt that all the directors I discovered then were like family: Bogdanovich, Friedkin, De Palma, Lucas, Allen, Cimino, Ashby, Polanski, Forman (I know, the last two are not American, but how can I skip the directors of Chinatownand Hair?) Family, too, were the filmmakers of a previous generation such as Kubrick, Penn, Lumet, and Peckinpah, and the old masters that I worshipped like saints: Hitchcock, Wilder, and Ford, above all.
Woody Allen has repeatedly said he would love to live inside a sophisticated comedy. I too wanted to look like Cary Grant, be friends with William Powell and Myrna Loy, and spend at least one day in their world of fancy hotels and classy music, champagne, and the lights of Broadway. But for me this fantasy was maybe too beautiful. The movie lives in which I immersed myself were often quite mediocre. Yet to me, living in the provinces, even the most banal scenes in American movies, with their neon lights, houses with color TV, and radios that were always on, had an epic aura—as epic as the illusory escape of the couple in The Sugarland Express, or the disastrous rebellions of Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon and Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Here in these movies was the idea that every moment, even the most insignificant, must be conquered, rather than being taken for granted as a heritage, or a credit, as we old Europeans tend to do.
Don’t get me wrong, I also had my heroic moments, and seeing The Wild Bunch was life-changing—I watched it again and again in a Rome cine-club with a terrible print that broke on average four times per screening. I have little in common with aging bandits resisting the death of the Old West, and even less with their enemies: corrupt officials, merciless railroad owners, and lawmen with a shadowy past. Not to mention Mapache, an epitome of violent debauchery, played by the unforgettable Emilio “El Indio” Fernandez, who once killed a film critic who trashed one of his films. That death is another story, but suffice to say that violence and heroic retribution seemed to me very real and personal.
The way the Wild Bunch entered Fort Sumner to rescue a friend, walking to their deaths with an acceptance of destiny, made me feel different, excited, passionate, courageous. In one word, alive. And it reassured me that life can make sense, that redemption is possible.
This surge of affirmation came in part from that inimitable Peckinpah style: the extreme realism, so different from previous westerns, with the graphic and unavoidable violence, fast editing, and slow motion celebrating a choreography of death. Tableau Mourants, wrote someone: I loved that expression, because death had violently entered my life, and would never leave, like the evil character in Fanny and Alexander who tells the young protagonist that he will stay with him forever.
I never felt so ready to live as when watching the deaths of those heroic criminals in that poor cine-club, filled with smokers who would scream and laugh every time the film broke. I never felt so grateful.
I experienced similar emotions often during those years, with very different films:Little Big Man, with the Indian chief who decides that it is a good day to die and prays for his gods to call him but instead gets only rain; or The Deer Hunter, with Robert De Niro refusing to go to a party in his honor when he returns from Vietnam, preferring the solitude of a desolate motel, where he bows over his knees and brings his hand to his face. An unexpected gesture of pain, a longing for a warmth that seems impossible. How did Cimino know that it was something that I often wanted to do? How did a gesture so unnatural and yet so sincere create a liaison between myself and a steel worker who went to Vietnam.
I learned that the films that most affect me are definitively un-heroic. American Graffiti, for example. I still remember the small Rome movie theater where I watched it; I was alone that early afternoon and in heaven. The film conquered me so completely that I ignored how insignificant was that small California town, and how modest were those lives. I wanted to be like them—live at night, listen to that music, wear colorful shirts, go to an American college and meet Wolfman Jack. I even identified with the tag line Where were you in the ’60s? (A toddler in the small town of Cisterna di Latina, near Rome.) And I preferred to ignore a pivotal element: the film was a clear homage to I Vitelloni, which is in every sequence the work of a genius. Even though Fellini’s masterpiece speaks about people that I know extremely well, it didn’t have the same effect. It might be a matter of horizons or a closer generation, but Richard Dreyfuss’s Curt Henderson was to me much more appealing than Moraldo, played by Franco Interlenghi.
What did I bring back home that afternoon? What do I bring back when I go to the movies today? Is it hope, or the imaginative fulfillment of a longing? Or is it still respite from grief, if of a different, more mundane kind than the loss of my father? I continue to wonder if my provincialism has something to do with my passion for cinema, for escaping into the lives of others, even if those lives are mundane. If I live today on a continent different from the one where I was born, it’s because at the end of American Graffiti, Curt gets on a plane and leaves.
Antonio Monda is the artistic director of the literary festival Le Conversazioni. A columnist for Vogue and a regular contributor to La Repubblica.
Photo from Young Frankenstein; by Flickr Creative Commons user Insomnia Cured Here.