As the 2020 edition of the International New York Film Festival comes to a close, an Italian entry stands out called Tides of Memory, inspired by an encounter with William Kentridge and his extraordinary work Triumphs and Laments on the embankment of the River Tiber, a powerful, poetic and bemused reflection on man, time and oblivion. Director Luisa Mariani has written the screenplay and plays herself in the film.
South African artist Kentridge is well-known for his animated films which have also taken him to opera stages around the world giving productions a highly distinctive look. Projections – often of his animated drawings – coupled together with his use of puppetry have produced some striking work. His extraordinary use of swirling black and white designs threatened to overshadow the singers in Die Zauberflöte at La Scala in 2011. His productions of Shostakovich’s The Nose and Berg’s Wozzeck at the Metropolitan Opera in New York were well received, as was Berg’s Lulu which was a co-production with the Met, English National Opera and Dutch National Opera, and Wozzeck was seen at the Salzburg Festival in 2017.
Kentridge’s mural Triumphs and Laments became the city’s largest contemporary artwork, and is also Kentridge’s biggest work, at half a kilometre in length. The 550m stretch of black and white images was unveiled on 21 April 2016 and was commissioned to mark the anniversary of Rome’s founding in 753BC.
It is an iconographic tribute to the history of Rome, from its legendary origins to the present day, through its splendours and miseries, glories and defeats: from the triumphs of the empire to the Jewish ghetto, from the murder of Remus to the death of Pier Paolo Pasolini, the murder of Moro and even the meeting of Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita. The work hovers between collective and individual memories but is deliberately destined to disappear within a few years owing to smog and atmospheric factors. To disappear in the same way that our memories fade with the passing of the years. As Kentridge says in the film, the transience of memory is closely linked to the impermanence of the human body itself.
Tides of Memory intriguingly mixes reality with imagination. It starts with a boat ride along the Tiber between Ponte Sisto and Ponte Mazzini, the embankments of which feature Kentridge’s extraordinary murals. It is here that the young Anglo-Italian actor Simon d’Aquino, playing a cameo role as himself, runs into his high school teacher (Marina Barranger) on a trip with her English journalist husband (Michael Barranger). Simon, after high school, moved to London to pursue his acting vocation. A conversation about his career ensues in which he remembers the important lessons he received from his teacher, especially how she encouraged him to draw from his emotional memory. The work of Austrian author Stefan Zweig is discussed as it inspired an interactive version of Grand Budapest Hotel which d’Aquino recently performed on the London stage: “Zweig’s works were burnt by the Nazis,” the young actor remarks; “All dictatorial regimes fear the weight of memory,” his teacher replies.
The theme of identity is intertwined with that of today’s new diaspora and multi-ethnicity. Among the protagonists are two young second-generation Italians – Lián (Valerio Tzeng) and Abir (Nada Saad Ismail) – who cannot marry because they belong to different religions; and Roma King (Mauro Leuce) who maintains that the cultural memory of his people is rooted in their music.
In a metaphysical garden, where Luisa Mariani meets Polish actor Jan Kozaczuk, Proustian olfactory memories bring back times of youth: vaporous atmospheres from which one awakens roughly into today’s reality where the computer has become the custodian of memory.
Disposable objects, usually destined to be thrown out, are instead preserved in the art of Marco Angelini. The opening of his exhibition, aptly entitled Kaleidoscope: Memory and Oblivion, is attended by actor Mario Valdemarin, writer Marco Palladini (who quotes Calvino: “You have to remember to forget.”), and the Stendhal Gang (Malvina Ruggiano, Giulia Tomaselli, Emma Giurghi), fashionistas and thieves of canvases.
Or of memories?
Over an original soundtrack by accordionist Paolo Rozzi, passes a parade of motley characters, as jumbled up as memories in that fragmented disc of the human mind. One of these unlikely characters is actress Violetta Chiarini who evokes Tryphaena Crepereia, a girl who lived in the middle of the 2nd century A.D. and was found together with her doll in a sarcophagus on the banks of the Tiber. The river deity who reigns over the tides and survives the transience of the triumphs and lamentations of the Eternal City.
The ‘emotional-sensory exercises’ of Tides of Memory, will be developed in Luisa Mariani’s feature film Flussi e Riflussi (Ebb and Flow), currently in production.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.