When in Rome You’re Nobody

When Rome was attacked by Visigoths, Saint Augustine responded by writing “City of God” where he contrasted the earthly city with the heavenly city. In some sense, Rome was the City of Man, decadent and craving for earthly pleasures as opposed to the City of God that comes from seeking divine joy.

I did not like the movie “Time of the gypsies” because it showed the gypsies in such a poor light. Emir Kusturica is a good director. He understands technique. But, he has no vision. The content does not transcend the form of the movie. It stays within limits as you would expect from a student who performs well in the exams but is not a creative genius who can dissent with the teacher and defy the exam. One important scene in the movie is set in Rome when the protagonist Perhan who from an innocent and kind human being turns corrupt and mean, meets his lost sister Danira that he dearly loves. The meeting however ends with Perhan’s death that follows the death of his innocence.

Indian politicians can be deeply thankful that there is a scoundrel called Berlusconi leader of the Forza Italia political movement who heads the government in Italy and who is as corrupt, degenerate and right-wing as themselves. With Berlusconi coming back to power in 2008, there is little doubt that Italy is heading towards fascism and this time the target will be the poor immigrants.

Globalization in its attempt to create a common market has alienated more people than can be imagined making it possible for the right-wing to capitalize on the anger and frustration of common people and throwing them into the arms of nationalists who feel that they’ve lost ground since the so-called European Union. The anti-immigration phenomenon is going to rise dramatically in days to come and the curse of nationalism that Europe brought upon the world will raise its ugly head to fight the social and emotional vacuum created by globalization.

The Rome in Augustine is not the same Rome in Kusturica where the gypsies that are non-entities to the mainstream Italians are settling scores. Nor is it the Rome from where Berlusconi runs his government. Just as the Japan I love is in the movies of Mizoguchi, Kurosawa and Ozu, the Rome I know is from the movies of Rossellini, Pasolini and Fellini. One is “Rome, Open City” (1945); another is “Mamma Roma” (1962) and the third “Fellini’s Roma” (1972). All of them use neo-realistic techniques, Fellini to a lesser extent, in an attempt to capture reality as “reality.” When Pasolini said, “In truth, my only hero is reality,” he was referring to a certain approach to the subject of reality.

Rome is a city where redemption is possible. Because the hero of the city is none other than Jesus himself. He lives among the outcasts – the beggars, the drunks, the prostitutes, the pimps, the failures, those whose existence is immaterial to mainstream society. Dostoevsky says that: “The most pressing question on the problem of faith is whether a man as a civilized being can believe in the divinity of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, for therein rests the whole of our faith.”

There is a certain love of the personhood of Jesus that we see in most artists of the war generation and after on the continent. From Bunuel to Tarkovsky it is Jesus whom we need to believe rather than the risen Christ. The Church in ignoring the former has made us forget the reality of the person to the imaginary need of salvation. Jesus the human person is the reality. The Christ of the Catholic Church is far from the reality. Rather, it’s a failed institution something close to a failed state of affairs.

There’s something of the marginal Rome in Rossellini, Pasolini and Fellini. Jesus is the superstar of that Rome. He takes the form of Giorgio the diehard resister who is murdered by the Gestapo in Rossellini’s “Rome – Open City.” In Pasolini Jesus is the prostitute Mamma Roma – the outcast of the city. In Fellini, Jesus is the city itself upon whose body the drama of our lives takes place. But the closest to the Jesus-figure in Fellini are in the movies “Nights of Cabiria,” “La Strada” and “La Dolce Vita.”

Life itself revolves around the possibility of discovering Jesus the person. The loss of this person in our lives is an absence that cannot be filled. Both victims and victimizers are in need of this person to stop the war of “all against all” which is the essence of survival. Only Jesus can bring such a peace because only Jesus is willing to choose to make the sacrifice.

One actor who stood out as the archetypal Roman was Anna Magnani in “Mamma Roma” who also played in Rossellini’s movie. I thought she was more Roman than Giulietta Masina as Cabiria. Anna Magnani was Mamma Roma, the same way that Peter O’Toole was Lawrence of Arabia, Anthony Quinn was Omar Mukhtar, Malcolm McDowell was Caligula and Ben Kingsley was Gandhi. It was an epic performance by Magnani without in fact being an epic.

The movie was an anti-epic filled with anti-heroes. One unforgettable scene is when Mamma Roma sees her son Ettore as a waiter in a restaurant and the pain in her joy is so great that she breaks into tears. However such a joy can only be short-lived for the outcasts of the world. What makes her Jesus-like is the fact that she is never understood and as Pasolini says: “Death does not lie in not being able to communicate but in no longer being able to be understood.” Her life is thus one long story of dying.

The Rome where Jesus is the protagonist lurking in the margins of the city when the whole world sleeps, the Rome of the saints and prostitutes and fascists and pimps and working classes, the Rome – an external layer of Christian morality beneath which lies the ancient dust of a pagan world, the Rome where the Church and the modern world fight their cultural battles, that is the Rome of nobody and everybody. It is also the Rome of Rossellini, Pasolini and Fellini.


Categories: Rethinking The World

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