Having bought a DVD of the film Frida on Easter eve, lured by one of those deals one can’t resist (2 DVD for 4.99 thing) and having been given a free ticket to the new “Goya’s Ghosts” at the cinema for Sunday morning, it only took the quick reading of Andrea Camilleri’s “Il colore del sole” to bring this uneasy combination of painters to crowd into my mind in the span of a few hours.
What do Frida Kahlo, Francisco Goya and Michelangelo Caravaggio have in common? Not an awful lot. More interesting than the impossible comparison between their paintings, it is the thought of how the art of painting has been depicted in the movies, or the mind of the painter described in Camilleri’s unconventional study of Caravaggio’s tortured last months, and what it reveals about the perils of investigating an art form through the language of another, that kept me busy. It invariably falls short of the mark, I think, although it can produce an interesting result on its own merit. Fact is that although tempting, the approach of explaining paintings with the life of the painter, or with arty montage of cinematography and original painted images, doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the medium and leads to great loss of content and simplistic readings of the authors. If this could seem adequate to the literal autobiographic approach of Frida Kahlo, in which the images directly reflect her own painful experience of life in the aftermath of a tragic accident that left her almost crippled, it is obvious that it cannot even begin to fathom the depths of Goya and Caravaggio. Painting is not a reproduction of reality, paint on canvas, but the result of an immensely complex intellectual effort that combines observation, thought and hand, to produce a result that simply defies any possible description in words, film or other language but its own. It can be partly described, but never fully translated.
Frida (the movie) is a soft erotic Hollywood feuilleton, proof that even a strong cast of good actors cannot make up for poor text and filming. It focuses on love and passion, nudity, and gives a superficial and historically not accurate vision of the Mexican avant-garde based on common places and trite clichés on communism and sexual promiscuity.
Goya’s Ghosts is a much better effort. Well filmed to start with, it attempts at showing how the unforgettable and dark vision of Goya’s etchings was formed, on the background of his land and times, with a sequel of powerful reconstructions. From the inquisition to the Napoleonic invasion of Spain, we follow the misfortunes of young Inez, one of Goya’s models, unjustly accused and prosecuted by a hypocritical and corrupt system, and the painter who tries to help her, somewhat naively (unbelievably so, in fact). After the “caprichos” etchings, one would imagine Goya to be a highly perceptive and caustic witness, not as easily fooled by appearances and the proclamations of innocence and good will of a devious monk, as the chief character of the film is. The story doesn’t end well, befittingly: Inez loses her mind, and hangs on to a baby she has found on the street as a surrogate to the daughter that was snatched from her at birth, and the hand of her dead torturer: quite a grotesque final image. Goya in pursuit, trying to recall his protégé but incapable, as all artists are, of changing things and condemned to the role of impotent if wonderfully eloquent witness. It is as good a time as any to remind us of the excesses of bigotry, the hypocrisy of power, the risk of fundamentalist religion, the ignorance and horror of dogmatism. This is not a costume drama, but a very present warning in disguise.
Camilleri’s effort is literary, strange, fantastic but somewhat unconvincing. Do not expect to gain any insight in Caravaggio, but to take another “trip” into the writer’s very own universe. For those who know his work, and they have to be Italian or extremely proficient in the language to appreciate his style that defies any possible translation, the book will come both as a surprise and a confirmation. He reconstructs a plausible baroque Italian, instead of his usual half Sicilian, but reconfirms some of his robust and picaresque themes: a southern obsession with bombastic libidinous descriptions with unbelievable sketches, stronger even than Boccaccio’s. The writer his also a refined intellectual, but other than suggesting the use of a dark room and a mysterious visual ailment that would explain the mistery of Caravaggio’s shadowy style- allegedly it made him see the sun as black- he does little to shed light or give meaningful insight in the great master. Furthermore he seems to suggest that Caravaggio was incapable of writing well, and makes him express simple thoughts as if the man had been a simple spirit. Given that thought isn’t necessarily composed of words, and that painting is the very expression of thoughts in images, we must come to the conclusion that the author of work like Caravaggio’s is a genius regardless of his written or oral eloquence. I cannot decide though whether this level of visual depth can be combined with shallow writing and simple observations in the same person. Even so a writer should fight the pretension of being the depositary of intelligence and thoughts, if this is only based on their ability of dealing with words alone, as if these necessarily were thought and intellect itself. Much of value is not verbal, including music and paintings, and it seems a great pretension on the part of writers and critics to value only that which can be said in words to the exclusion of things that simply cannot. Camilleri escapes my criticism, because I strongly suspect him never to have had any pretension as far as understanding or explaining Caravaggio is concerned, other than making up one of his typical stories in a new setting. And this he has done.