In the silence of a square, a man in a Mexican sombrero dances to inaudible music; on a pier, an old man tries some steps while humming a 1959 pop song; an old woman sings a folk song to the camera. Through these figures suspended in a beautifully photographed landscape, Eleonora Danco's first feature film N-Capace (2014) leads the viewer to an ever-closer encounter with the inhabitants of her childhood hometown of Terracina on the Tyrrhenian coast south-east of Rome. If these opening scenes suggest a documentary, what immediately follows redirects the viewers' expectations toward a surreal film.
On a beach a man in a suit and a white-clad woman stretch their arms as if in flight; the woman stands looking at the sea next to an anachronistically-dressed old lady, asking pleadingly: "Mom, how long is it to 11? Let me go in the water, mom." The protagonist of these oneiric images linked together by eerie electronic music is "Tormented Soul," a figure of the artist and alter-ego of the filmmaker. Danco's voice—at once the voice-over for Tormented Soul and that of interviewer—seamlessly blends together the two coexisting registers traversing the film: documentary and allegorical fiction.
The story of a homecoming is the premise of N-Capace, its title a play on the Italian incapace, "unable," and its reverse, "able to the n-th degree." Tormented Soul returns to the landscapes of her childhood to meet the ghosts of her past: her dead mother and the still looming figure of her father. Along with many old and young people of Terracina, the father is interviewed in the course of the film on topics ranging from childhood memories to sex, life and death. The interviews are mostly shot in the open landscape—nature or the nearly deserted streets and parks of the provincial town. Bringing into the public square what is most vulnerable, as well as harder to voice and represent—love, fears, memories, desires—N-Capace turns the actual landscape into a mental space, giving rise to a complex performance of "public intimacies" (1).
N-Capace is a surprising film that suspends the viewer's expectations about genres and film style and pushes us to walk that fine line joining the world of things and the invisible world of imagination that feeds and sustains our presence on earth. The story told is an intimate one of family, loss and belonging, but at the same time its "public" quality compels a wider reflection on the relation of self and community. The film invites a questioning of our contemporary understanding of the social sphere, exposing the conflicted and distracted relation that our late-modern, post-industrial, digitalized culture entertains with the past and the present.
Transmediality: Cine-Photo-Theater en Plein Air
N-Capace's multiple engagements with theater, painting and photography contribute to its original stylistic mix of real and imaginary. Danco's experience as a theater director and performer profoundly influences her cinematic vision and storytelling, and the dominant mode of N-Capace is confessional and theatrical. The filmmaker acts out, through her alter-ego, her "N-ability" to live, love and create. The interviewees don't simply speak to the camera but stage their life-stories in the open air, and even the camera has an openly foregrounded role to play. The resulting effect is that we the spectators, as in theater, are constantly reminded that we are here, now, sharing this space with the actors, witnessing something happening before our eyes.
At times moving and heart-rending—like the confession of solitude by the father—often funny and always entertaining, the interviews attest to Danco's great skill in coaxing people not just to share experiences and thoughts in front of the camera, but to consciously act them. People spar with the often intrusive interviewing voice—a voice that prods, pushes, takes risks—and agree to perform, at times only a few words or a song, and often complex theatrical mise en scènes. "Call your mother as if you were eight years old," Danco asks her father. Defamiliarized by the recitation, words acquire a new weight, conjuring displaced affects and mental attitudes.
But the most used feature is the allegorical tableaux. Following the interview, most of the subjects pose in the landscape, reminding us alternatively of Edouard Manet's Déjuner sur l’erbe and the early films of Luis Buñuel. These passages are jolting and puzzling, turning, in the space of a jump cut, the real surreal, document into allegory. And yet, having the voice of the person interviewed bleeding over the allegorical tableau creates an intriguing narrative continuity. The effect achieved is double: to defamiliarize the worn-out grammar of the documentary (frontal take, voice-over, question-answer) and open reality to a dreamlike dimension.
Danco has mentioned the influence of the empty, stage-like spaces of Giorgio De Chirico's paintings on her mise-en-scène. Yet unlike the Greek-Italian painter, Danco loves the human body, the intricate landscapes of faces etched by time, people's voices and stories, as only the camera can. The genealogies evoked by the film's aesthetic mix of modernist sensibility and documentary vocation, however, are more hidden and complex.
"Photography is a kind of primitive theater," Roland Barthes observed (2). Aware of this quality, Danco's cinematic image constantly veers toward the photographic. The moving image dialogues with its underlying stillness through a series of jarringly different aesthetic choices, from the realism of the frontal portrait to the surrealism of the staged tableaux, as well as the use of actual photographs grotesquely overlaid on the filmed bodies, evoking the irreverence of Dadaist collage.
Behind the stylistic hybridizations between cinema and photography, there is one intent: to harness photography's power of concentration and contemplation and draw the spectator within the theater of the image, from immediate cinematic visibility to a level where visibility fades into the invisible. One cultural point of reference comes to mind in particular. The aestheticized realism of N-Capace gestures toward Paul Strand's photography and specifically the photo-book he realized in 1954 with Cesare Zavattini, the Italian screenwriter and proponent of neorealism. Bringing together Strand's images of the people of Luzzara, Zavattini's hometown, and their words, Un Paese is an important early example of transmediality.
Most importantly, Un paese, like N-Capace, stages a return home. A return home is a return to the past, a movement in geography that evokes a movement in time. For this reason, like Zavattini before her, Danco finds out that home is the hardest place to encounter, involving, as it does, the confrontation with something unresolved and unsettling. For Zavattini the personal journey home involved a bigger project "of trying to become an Italian instead of simply being one" (3). The journey home of N-Capace is intimate, yet its final strength and import lies in the fact that, just like Un paese sixties years before, it invites a reflection on the personal and collective past, as well as the meaning of both local and national community, memory and belonging.
Interviewer: "Do you think there is a life after death?"
Old Man: "No, there is nothing. When one is dead is dead like the chicken in the broth you ate."
The cinematic camera is the site where a new sociability is explored and tested. As noted earlier, the camera itself plays a role on Danco's cinematic stage. Like the interviewer, it intrudes on the people through close-ups and extreme close-ups. Never static, never taken for granted, never objective, the camera has a transactional and dialogic relation with the world, different engagements delivering different interactions. The camera offers a constant invitation to open up, to remember, to be in the world, even as it amplifies a call to another world presently missing: the past, loved ones, etc.
The camera mediates an unfathomable boundary between the here-and-now and elsewhere. It works as an opening to another world of evoked interlocutors, experiences, and memories. Becoming literally a telecommunication across time, the camera is invested with a mythical power akin to Orpheus' lyre to travel to the netherworld, to move both living and dead. If the dead, no more Danco's mother than Eurydice, cannot be brought back, the camera still carries out the task of mending time.
"I miss my dad; I miss him, I miss having him home…" confesses Francesco the young pizza-maker, and then, peering into the camera, as if into the depth of a cave or a magic ball in which one expects to confront the lost eye of the loved one, he delivers a whispered message to the glassy lens: "Dad, dad why did you leave? Why? Why did you go with another woman instead of staying with mom?… I pardon him, what else can I do? He's my dad."
Francesco's cinematic reconciliation with his missing father speaks to the heart of the film's concerns. Parents are figures that loom large in N-Capace. The film opens with an archetypal mother who stands behind her daughter, scolding her; later on the daughter sneaks up with a stone behind the father. The film explores the question of what to do with one's parents and by extension what to do with the past and how to imagine a future.
Danco's attitude is conflicted. Parents embody a temporal horizon that alternatively speaks of repressive limitations and of the possibility of belonging, being at home. Tormented Soul returns home to mourn the passing of her mother, a loss that dwarfs her, leaves her homeless. But when in town she visits and interviews her father, a past which, because still living, is a hurdle that stands in the way of life. Tormented Soul wavers unreconciled between a mourning adult and a cruel and peevish teenager who, belatedly, mocks and attacks her father, his delusions, his false reserve, his pathetic shortcomings. "I filmed this movie like a sixteen-year-old who skips school and spends the day wandering the streets" (4) Torn between memory and parody, Danco stops short of accepting the past as a history that we construct and choose. "Do you know that we are condemned to become like our parents?" the filmmaker intimates to an interviewee, equating growing up with a life sentence, the rehearsal of the same plot from generation to generation, one that we can criticize and mock, but hardly change. Living in history beyond mourning and mocking entails acceptance and reconciliation; growing up means recognizing our history in the story of others.
Despite Danco's misgivings, cinema holds a promise of connection and healing, as the closing words of Tormented Soul suggest: "I tasted the bitter sugar of death… but nonetheless I have all this memory in the eyes that saves… you'll see, mom, everything will be fine. As always, right?"
The Young Goddesses // N-Capace, Eleonora Danco (2014)
In the Society of Drop-Outs
Interviewer: "How do you spend your days?"
Goddess: "I do nothing"
Along with Tormented Soul, the unreconciled daughter and existential drop-out, the protagonists of the film are the inhabitants of Terracina interviewed by Danco. They belong to two groups of seemingly "N-able" characters: the adolescents, many of whom are actual drop-outs; and the very old, metaphorical drop-outs from the active stream of life. Asked about this choice of demographic, Danco explains that young and old live in a vacuum, "worthless in the scheme of productivity, they are not needed by society, their minds are free to wander" (4) But, contrary to Danco's expectations, the only true wanderer is Tormented Soul. If the artist lives "in limbo between the certainties imposed by society and the fact that we cannot accept them," (4) the people interviewed are solidly rooted in worlds of certainties: the time-tested beliefs of the old, the unquestioned myths of the young. Although they are more socially integrated than the director thinks, the choice of these two distant age cohorts evokes a palpable sense of vacuum and forces a reflection on the very meaning of the word "society," the location of its center and margins, and the actual texture of the fabric that holds people together. Where exactly in our post-industrial age is the productive, adult society to be located? How can we speak of margins and center in the context of a diffuse global social network? What are we even thinking of, in our late-modern, digitally connected universe, when we say "society?"
Far from liberating, the absence of the middle generation and incidentally the artist's age cohort creates a sense of temporal and social claustrophobia. While moving in the same landscape, the young and old never communicate or cross paths. Rigidly contained within discrete frames through the heavy use of frontal portraits and tableaux, they live isolated on separate temporal planes. The old tell their life stories immersed in nature, seeming like incongruous monuments wrapped in the aura that envelops archeological remains. The young, almost naked or wrapped in timeless togas, converse with the filmmaker and, following her prompts, perform choreographed rites of youth.
Collectivity— family, neighborhood, and institutions— is either a memory in the stories of the old or a group performance for the camera. Tormented Soul's journey back home to meet real and metaphorical drop-outs evokes a frayed, atomized image of community. The viewer is left with the feeling that, in contemporary Italian society, family and community can hardly hold people together. Life seems contained between a never-ending process of children tearing away or torn away from parents, and the loneliness of a last song and dance on the extreme edge of life's pier. The funny, surreal scene of the father and his Moldavian home-care attendant, wearing space suits and dancing to an Eastern European folk tune, drives home how in Terracina, Italy, circa 2014, people live as if on the surface of the moon, each in their own temporal bubble, moving across a beautiful yet desolate planet whose very habitability is endangered.
An Ethnographic Journey in Present-Day Italy
Danco's posture toward the contemporary world is "willingly immature," suspended between escape and occasional protest. In the streets of Testaccio in Rome, carrying a pickaxe, Tormented Soul threatens to tear down a newly built shopping mall that transforms an ancient neighborhood into an anonymous hub. Beside occasional jabs at neoliberal policies, a sense of impotence and civic disaffection prevails, one that resonates in many of the interviews with the youth who have relinquished education, career, mobility for an indifferent life on the margins.
This refusal of the present is first of all a stylistic choice: "I wanted to take out [of the film] everything that was current, present, contemporary" (4). Luckily for Danco, such an operation is cinematographically impossible. Even if one can take a drop-out out of society, stripping and clothing them in white robes or having them pose in timeless settings, one still cannot take society out of the drop-out. The profilmic—the real landscapes and faces—adheres to the allegorical settings, making the film's historicity unmistakable.
The fascination of the film rests exactly in the hybrid coexistence of abstract allegory and realism; its powerful ability to penetrate, while dream-walking, into the hidden social folds of an Italian province. What emerges is a cross-section of Italian society refracting in absentia a complex if puzzling image of a country, modern yet profoundly traditional and, above all, profoundly disoriented.
Danco is at once a metteur en scène and an acute observer of reality. The allegorical trip to her hometown is an ethnographic journey that zeros in on social rituals—summer, the beach, first love, "the cult of the dead"—and mourns the hollowing out of family, its spaces and modes of togetherness and everydayness. N-Capace fully takes on this quality of an ethnographic documentary during the extensive sequences in which it interrogates people about their sexual mores, an instance when all the characters of N-Capace share a common conversation across the frames. The way people talk, or avoid talking, about sexual matters is a measure of historical changes. And yet, Danco's interviews reveal a more complex reality that breaks down the rigid binarism of young and old.
If, as one would expect, the interviews with youth confirm the explicitness of contemporary sexual discourse, they do so to reveal how the sex/gender divide remains solidly in place. While the boys, prompted by the filmmaker, shout their "likes and not likes" to the camera (Tits! Butts! Etc.), the girls speak ironically of abusive relationships or dreamily, secretly, confess their lesbian love to the camera. Conversely, the older generation can be reticent, like the father, or disarmingly honest, like the man who shares in detail his sexual initiation with a much older woman. The women, on the other hand, most often speak of violence and abusive relationships in which there is no room for pleasure.
Of all the characters we meet in the film, the octogenarian Mafalda plays, along with the father, a consistently bigger role. If the father is memorable for his quiet dignity, Mafalda stands out for her liveliness and simple wisdom. What she says about sex comes as a jolt in a visually and verbally oversexed age like ours and brings the important reminder that ultimately sex escapes culture, legislation, even representation. Asked to speak of how she discovered sexuality, she replies: "Sex unveils itself… it is nature that does it on its own." The graceful answer of this charming storyteller, singer and philosopher of the film reminds us that sex is both historically constructed and outside time. To a society in thrall to a desperate myth of visibility, Mafalda's simple words evoke a silence and a mystery that needs no words, bears no words, needs no images, is contained by no images.
The camera and Danco's ongoing dialogue recreates a sense of sociability, but one that is mediated and stylized and which gives rise to a complex effect of public intimacy. "Public intimacy" is also a term that aptly describes the social sphere in the age of the internet. If, on the one hand, the aesthetics of the film embody the separate togetherness that characterizes the questionable intimacy of the cloud, on the other, the film returns intimacy to the materiality of spaces and environments. In a way N-Capace works as a poetic reminder that we all live and belong to a landscape that sustains our being in time, grounds our experiences, and gives us a sense of common belonging.
A Cinema To Measure Time: Film-Memory
With its original visuals and narrative form, N-Capace occupies a special place in the present documentary wave coming out of Italy, including works by Gianfranco Rosi, Pietro Marcello and Alina Marazzi, to name only a few. But the film's closest connection might be with Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty (2012), its sleek aesthetics and visual tropes and, most importantly, the confessional figure of the artist in crisis.
Yet unlike the conceited and nihilistic Jep Gambardella, Tormented Soul directly stages her mourning process and her inability to reclaim the past. Danco foregrounds the artist as endowed with a vision yet one that is oddly stunted— fixed on a dream of adolescence, unable to enter history, it remains a compelling figure of our late-modern discontent. In a national cinema that too often couples great visual daring with a comparative timidity in storytelling, Eleonora Danco's honest look at herself and perceptive ear for people's stories stands out. Talking of her relation to cinematic tradition, she notes: "We should look at our past with ambition… instead of lingering around what is safe" (4). Danco faces the challenge of the cinematic past by silently engaging the legacy of another desperately probing artist torn between private demons and civil vocation: the poet, writer, filmmaker, and social critic Pier Paolo Pasolini.
The most compelling and yet undeclared engagement of N-Capace is with Pasolini's 1964 documentary Comizi d'amore, a journey though the Italy of the miracolo economico to gather people's attitudes about love and sex. N-Capace can be read as a contemporary follow-up on Pasolini's earlier inquiry. Generally, Danco's work displays many stylistic affinities with Pasolini's cinema: the frontal shot, the pictorial tableaux, the fascination with people's faces and bodies. But above all she shares with Pasolini the attention to what Miguel de Unamuno described as the intrahistoria, the silent and invisible life of common people. A "deep" Italy once sung by Pasolini reemerges in Danco's film seemingly unchanged—a still disappearing peasant world, a marginal working class resigned to the struggle for survival with no sense of belonging to a wider national community ("Da politica nun me ne frega niente, s'annassero ad ammazza tutti;" "Of politics I don't give a fig, if only they all went to hell"), a youth who remains in the internet age as atavistically "hungry" as the youngsters of Pasolini's Ragazzi di vita and Accattone.
Notwithstanding the disquieting sense of deep continuity, the myth of an unchanging Italy was shattered long ago by Pasolini himself, just about the time of Comizi d'amore. Under the influence of the rapidly expanding society of the miracolo economico, Pasolini denounced the "anthropological mutation" of the Italian people into an amorphous nation of consumers. The Italy of N-Capace is living the extreme unfolding of the modernization that started with the economic miracle.
After thirty years of Silvio Berlusconi's mediatic rule and twenty of his actual political rule, Pasolini's anthropological mutation has run its full course. Conspicuous consumption, the ethos of easy success, and the myth of appearance instilled by reality TV has branded the youth with its indelible mark and its most brutal materialistic mantra. Against Danco's conviction that the submerged world revealed in the film "is so explosive that it is a threat to the status quo," the young man's refrain in the film: "Ci vo' li sordi;" "One's got to have money," stands as a reminder that there is no outside of mainstream values and conventions here. If there is a threat to society emerging from this unseen reality, it is the danger that lies in the atomization of relations, the fraying of any sense of a social contract, the impoverishment of any sense of community, for which no common vision or sense of a shared political project comes to the rescue. The March 2018 national election suggests that what emerges from such a vacuum, such isolation, is a hodgepodge of internet-driven illusions, racism and resurgent nationalist movements.
Danco's focus on the very young and very old is a powerful visualization of the crisis of historical continuity and the confusion of times that troubles our contemporaneity. If the young root the film visually in the present, the old, with their songs and stories, evoke the invisibility of Italy's pasts, bringing to the fore forgotten and disorienting temporal layerings. Mafalda came of age in the war years and evokes the poor Italy of peasants, folklore and tight communities. Next to her stands another generation of old yet not so old people, the youth of the "economic miracle," like Danco's father. They stand worlds apart and yet the passage of time has flattened these generations unto each other. The modernity of the Sixties, with its enticing promises of "benessere," has aged and turned stale and now seems as old as the Italy of the peasants that came before it.
These times, so remote, yet still part of living memory, raise questions of how we got where we are and even where that is. This collapse of historical times is behind the confusion of values, the sense of social vacuum, the lack of a project. Italy emerges as a country that has run its dream of modernity into the ground. Where is Italy? What happened to its history? Where is this country of marvelously lucid centenarians, of young sad pizzaioli, and veline (show-girls) going?
Essay by Giuliana Minghelli
Associate Professor, Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures
Guest Curator, Filmatique
(1) See Giuliana Bruno, Public Intimacy: Architecture and the Visual Arts, Cambridge: MIT, 2007.
(2) Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, New York: Hill and Wang, 1980: 32.
(3) See my "Zavattini/Celati Documentaristic Visions from Un paese to Mondonuovo" in Landscape and Memory in Post-Fascist Film: Cinema Year Zero, New York: Routledge, 2013.