Monday, September 11, 2017

Zurlini, from the back

What’s left of films once they transfer into that first small screen: memory? Films like Valerio Zurlini’s Family Portrait (1962), where there is already one character evoking the memory of another, his brother, who has disappeared. And where another one has the image of a woman brought up to him – his mother – whom he has never known. For me, what ‘was left’ of this film which (so loudly and painfully) already asked the question ‘who will be left to try and tell the little that was left of a life’ was only the almost olfactory memory (the overpowering smell of faded flowers) of certain funeral shots. 
In a flop or a banal film there often remains one or two scenes exceptionally well made that persist in the memory. In a real film like Family Portrait there might very well only remain one or two images. But these images don’t persist in the memory as the ‘best moments’ in a forgettable or half-forgotten film; they remain because they are like screen memories that stand guard around the personal secrets of a film loved almost in secret. Because, as Frederic (Federico-Mastroianni) could say: you must protect yourself, after all. 
A man waits for the telephone call that will bring him news of his brother’s death. The walls are yellow and sweaty (we’re in Naples), the receiver black, the booth derelict. Facing us, the red-eyed, voiceless man waits for the thing to be said, at the other end of the line. But at the moment when it is, as if to discourage the camera ‘closing in’ on him, Mastroianni turns his back and this back takes up the whole screen. And this back becomes a screen memory; what would be the film’s cipher if the film were a strongbox. 
Is this an effect of style intended (obligingly) to signify humility? You might think so if it were not that in the following scene a tearful Mastroianni is followed at length (by the camera and the music) through the deserted, insalubrious and never more beautiful streets of Naples. Zurlini does not shun the ‘grand aria’ of suffering, he makes do with showing things twice over: one face on (for the scene) once back-turned (for the camera). He is probably one of the last directors never to have stopped wavering between the aesthetic of the secret and the aesthetic of display, and the very particular music of his film insists, convincingly, that there was no middle ground for him. 
The film tells a love story between two men who are brothers reunited too late in life. The scene where Laurent (Lorenzo-Perrin) takes refuge with his elder brother, who is by now tuberculous and virtually down and out, and where with him we discover the classic little room of the solitary, is a great cinematic moment (or, at any rate, the scene so cruelly missing from usual gay soapy love films). The older brother pretends to be working and the younger to be sleeping. Turned sometimes towards the wall and sometimes towards his brother, as if each line of dialogue compelled him to invent a new way of settling. Now, a bed is the very place where turning your back on the other is impossible, because a back speaks volumes. 
Family Portrait is a film where love is born from the need felt by the one who faces up to things for the one who has his back against the wall, and vice versa. It is a film about weakness, a subject rarer than would appear. Seen again on television, it gives a valuable insight into a moment in cinema (a few years after Pickpocket or L’Avventura) when it was still possible to tell stories where characters progress through life, albeit retreating, in other words ‘back-turned’. And for whoever progresses in this way, the only escape routes are those rushing headlong away from the unknown future or the half-glimpsed present towards the retro-vision of the past. 
The tele-vision of a film like this also makes us acutely aware of the fact that in the media, in general, backs have disappeared. ‘Turning your back to the camera’ is more than a discourtesy: it’s a crime. Just as television has accustomed us to a world where ‘artificial daylight’ has reduced the role of shadows, it makes us used to bodies without backs, reduced to the idiotic frontality of a recto without any verso. Synthesized images pirouette with such gay abandon only because they have no reverse. In the cinema everything could turn into a face; in the media everything is already a face. The result of course is that the gaze is no more, and when one Sunday evening we come across Mastroianni and Perrin, it isn’t just their capacity to weep face on that knocks us out, but the capacity of their back to envisage the worst. 
First published in Libération on 6 December 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

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