Authors: Arthur Japin
ALSO BY ARTHUR JAPIN
In Lucia's Eyes
The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi
Signora Vandemberg! From Holland. She was the most beautiful woman in the world â¦
âfrom “Il sogno del leone in cantina,”
Federico Fellini's last completed footage
The Mannequins' Ball
Les nouveaux pauvres
NÃ¼ftes, TÃ¼ftes, and GrÃ¼ftes
Rome was my idea. The new Rome. The Rome where life is sweet, the place people imagine when they hear the nameâthat's what I came up with. Just an idea, that's all it was. The city was broken down. She had survived the war but was still suffering from its consequences. There was no work and hardly anything to eat. The cheeky Roman glint had faded from people's eyes, their gazes still marked by the treachery and dying they had been forced to witness. There was too much sorrow lingering in the shade of the cypresses. It bounced off the walls with the heat and got under your skin.
Young and high-spirited, I had left Romagna behind and entered the Eternal City, like a lion tamer stepping into a cage. I settled in the Via Voltana thinking I would first goad the big-city girls and men with my rough wit and then subdue them with my youthful fire. But war broke out and life disappeared from the streets, shrinking back into courtyards and stairwells. That's where people scraped by, and when they finally dared to crawl out of their lairs they had been through too much to let themselves be tempted to play. The lions shrank back and licked their mangy hides with the pitiful gaze of old cats who would no longer let themselves be lured out. Most of them had nothing better to do than hang around the Isola Tiberina, hoping someone might come by with something that needed to be repaired in exchange for a bowl of
and half a bottle of cheap wine. Sloth dripped from their very
being, so much so that at night, when crossing the Piazza Sonnino on your way home, the cobblestones of Trastevere felt sticky underfoot. Every evening, it got harder to scrape off the dejection that clung to my spirit.
One morning it was as if I'd seen her in the street, Rome, the city herself, wallowing in her own filth. She was trying to get herself together among the scraps piled in the gutter after the close of the Porta Portese market. I came nearer and saw that her breasts were shriveled. Flies swarmed around the scars the war had left on her body. Because I could no longer stand to look at it, I helped her to her feet. I shook the dust out of her hair and off her bony shoulders and ran a bath for her. On the
I bought her new shoes and expensive French lipstick. Then I put her in a tight dress and sat her on a gleaming Vespa and told her that hereafter hers would be
la dolce vita
. She believed me. It was just a dream, but she started to live it. For the first time a smile came back to the face of the city I loved. Her self-confidence returned. I gave her that. By lying to her.
I told her not to overdo it. When you've lost something as tiny as your happiness, you shouldn't try to search for it everywhere at once. I told her that her life no longer extended to the piles of rubble along the Via Cassia and that she should stop worrying about the suffering in the Tiburtina tenements. I showed her the Via Veneto and said that's where we'd find what she was looking for. It was a short stretch of road, a few hundred feet, whose buildings had made it through with their grandeur intact. I built a copy in my studio so that she could walk up and down it in high heels, unhindered by reality. I hired a band to play the bossa nova to the rhythm of her swaying hips. I painted the facades of the bars and hotels high-gloss and used a soft-focus lens that made the neon advertisements shine like halos. Finally, I turned a spotlight on her, on Rome. In that beam of light she shone with all the allure of a metropolis and I urged her at all costs to stay inside that narrow circle of enchantment.
It was my fantasy, but the city was dying for something to believe in. And because she was prepared to believe in herself, the rest of the world believed in her too. People came all the way from America to see her with their own eyes and learn something about her new life. Ever
since then she's been back on the map. Because I set her limits. The Rome of drinking cocktails in sidewalk cafÃ©s, of my friend Marcello, of boisterous paparazzi, of the cool marble fountains. That is the Rome I invented. Because I loved her.
When you lie to a woman, it must be out of love.
That studio is empty now. Except for my bed. It's the old divan that used to be up in my office, where in the last few years I would sometimes rest between takes. They carried it downstairs and placed it in the middle of the studio. It makes a comfortable bed, but I'm lost in this gigantic space. Around me, on the floor, lie the chalk marks from the set of my last production, but there's not a prop in sight. There are no cables or well-thumbed screenplays lying around, not so much as a feather or a sequin from a costume. Even the olive pits and the pieces of salami skin you used to find everywhere after lunch have been swept up. High above me is the iron grid for the lights. It is bare. Someone has packed away the heavy black curtains that muffled the chatter of the extras and made it possible for me to talk to the crew without a megaphone.
The sliding steel doors, which take up a whole wall and can be opened in a trice to reveal the back lot, are bolted shut. Even the birds that nested on the beams below the roof seem to have flown away.
At sixteen I earned my first pay drawing cartoons and caricatures, and I sent them off to magazines in Rome. There, they caught the eye of a publisher of science fiction comics, who for a long time would let me do no more than write dialogue in balloons. It was mindless work. To keep from going crazy, I thought up my own adventures involving Zarco, Commander of the Planet Gomba. As more and more people, trying to support their families, moved away from our area, the manpower in the office fell to a critical level, and I was allowed to develop a few of those ideas. In the end I drew a number of episodes for our regional daily,
Il Resto del Carlino
After fixing a piece of blank paper in place, the first thing I did was draw up the lines. Even before I knew what I was going to draw, often before I had a clear story in mind, I would use a ruler to draw the boxes
in which the scenes would take place, just as later I often began by determining the frame and filling the shot with extras afterward. Generally, one of those cartoon pages followed a fixed formula, with the first and last pictures the biggest: the first was the introduction, the last one was for the punch line and the tie-in to the next day's episode. Sometimes, however, I would venture using a whole page for a single picture so that I would have enough space to do something bigger: a crowd scene or a panorama. The way to do that isn't to try to fill the whole box at once but to start with a couple of lines and a small, inconspicuous figure somewhere in the foreground.
That describes me lying here on my divan now, a tentative idea on a blank page. This little bed of mine in the bottom left, the emptiness around it contained by the walls of Studio 5, the floor beneath me and the grid above from which the spotlights will soon be hung. Together they form the frame, a lofty hall, which I have to fill completely with my dreams. Above the door to the corridor there is a glass plate with a red light behind it. It just flicked on: silence
When I was a boy in Rimini, many of the most thrilling moments I spent in the Fulgor, our local cinema, were during the last couple of minutes before the film started. Everyone was seated and waiting. They were still talking loudly. The children were howling. My mother smiled and made rustling noises opening bags of candy. The whole theater was so deliciously full of expectation. We were about to see Garbo, Ronald Colman, or the Marx Brothers. For a few days now, I've felt that same way. Except this time the tension is greater, grown-up, like the nervousness I felt when making my own films and walking into Studio 5 on the first day of shooting. There's more riding on it this time.
It still seems most like a lover's embrace. Already you can scarcely move, even as you want to be held more tightly still. The less you can move, the more intense your feelings get. You even have trouble breathing, but you feel secure. When her grip relaxes for a second, you feel like you're going to lose everything, and you hug her closer until she wraps her legs around you and crushes your sides between her thighs. Everything you have to say condenses into sighs. No one understands
them, but still you've said it all. Now and then my harsh mistress squeezes her arms tight, almost killing me. She lets me feel my body's limits. “Don't let go,” I cry. “Don't let go!” Then she kisses me and smiles, and tightens the belt of her love.
“Put a cork in it, kid,” she whispers, “the movie's about to start.”
Gala's story has to start with a rose. Lots of roses and tulips too, of course, because as a girl she lived in Holland, surrounded by all kinds of flowers, flowers of every imaginable sort. Yes, the first time we see her, she is surrounded by all the flowers of the world.
Like colorful stains, buds and stems lay strewn across the concrete floor of the auction hall. They had been squashed flat by the trucks driving in and out in the early-morning darkness. Her father strode through the fallen flowers, but Gala was trying to keep her new patent leather shoes clean. So they hopscotched through the mush hand in hand. Sometimes she jumped up, clung to his arm for a second, floating over the ground with her legs drawn up under her until he'd had enough and tried to shake her off, and then she'd leap and race off ahead.
They had almost reached the tall steel doors that granted admission to the immense complex when Gala stopped at a bunch of chrysanthemums. They hadn't been lying there very long and were fresh and relatively intact, but that wouldn't last long with the big trucks still driving in and out. Their headlights bothered the girl. She squinted.
Gala is sensitive to the rhythms of light.
Sometimes, driving down the long tree-lined avenue near their house on sunny days, she had to cover her eyes with her hands to keep from getting dizzy. She hadn't been doing it lately because she was almost eight and had resolved to cure herself of all childish habits before
her birthday. In the car she sat on her hands and kept her eyes wide open all the way down the avenue. She ran a gauntlet of light and shade. Three-quarters of the way down the street, she suddenly felt something coming up behind her, like a wave about to wash over her. For a second she thought someone was sitting behind her, a magician, perhaps, with a big flapping cape he was about to wrap around herâshe could already see the gleam of the red lining in the corner of an eye. But Gala didn't turn around. A girl who was almost eight was surely old enough to understand that there wasn't anyone there. In that instant the sun, uninterrupted, touched her face. She saw her reflection in the side window, proud that she had withstood this ordeal.
At the flower auction one of the drivers now flashed his lights to warn the girl of his approach. Another rolled down his window to shout something at her, but his voice was drowned out by the heavy rubber tires screeching over the concrete. Gala almost dropped the bunch of chrysanthemums she'd just picked up, in order to hide her face in her hands. But she didn't, because these flowers were for her father. She looked for him, but couldn't find him among the flashing lights. She pressed her eyes shut and felt the wind of a truck catch her skirt as it thundered past. Then, all at once, she knew he was behind her. He came running up out of the distance. A bright beam of light behind him cast a long shadow over the floor ahead of her, quickly growing shorter, smaller, faster, until it coincided perfectly with her own.