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March 12, 2008

Richard D. North on a great film with little shouting, no sex and not a lot happening: In Memory Of Me - Saverio Costanzo

Posted by Richard D. North

In Memory Of Me
Written and Directed by Saverio Costanzo
certificate U, 2007

We meet a young man as he enters a Jesuit seminary in Venice. As portrayed by Christo Jivkov, Andrea's a bit null. This is deliberate and well-judged. We can see that this novice doesn't bother to be attractive. He isn't winsome. He tells his superior that he has found life on the outside increasingly empty. He is no longer tempted by it. He wants something more, and something different.

Unsmilingly, and unyieldingly, he offers himself to the order. As we get to know him in the next few days we wonder if he's quite soulful enough to be a religious. But we also have our prejudices about the order he's joining: aren't the Jesuits a rather chilling lot? He may suit them.

All this is coming together on the screen with rather little said. We see the young prigs at their ablutions and their studies and their mealtimes, and we watch them with his eyes. Which is to say, we watch them too much, as though they were specimens, and with a little dislike.

It is important to the story (and there really is one) that the Jesuits like their Chapter of Faults, when the young men are invited to turn their collective fire on one of their number. We've already been told that it's an act of charity to rat in private on any of their chums' little failings. When it's Andrea's turn to be publically grilled, they say - just as we would - that's he's judgmental and too cool. It gives one a surprisingly warm feeling to hear him criticized in the terms one had been formulating in the dark.

It is a brilliant feature of this brilliant feature that Andrea is of intense interest to us, cool and distant as he is. We warm to him though he is not as interesting, apparently, as two other novices he takes an interest in. We watch them crash and burn in their very different ways.

One, Zanna, is not clever, and isn't articulate. But when his inner dam bursts he gives us a passionate and coherent denunciation of the Jesuit chilliness, and the way it combines with what he thinks is a horrible articulacy of faith. After his explosion, he leaves.

The other fellow, Fausto, is something like a friend, though "special friendships" are forbidden. This chum isn't necessarily all that clever, but he is noisily philosophical. He hasn't the mental flexibility for theology. He thinks it's mumbo jumbo, and he leaves, with a skip in his step - but not before he has tried to propagandise Andrea.

We watch Andrea as he warms to these two. But he is not seriously infected by either, and instead defines his own religious life by triangulating himself with theirs.

And that's it. Andrea grows into being a Jesuit. The Jesuits say they are delighted by him, and not least because he sees the merit in the anger and the arguments of his less amenable confreres. There’s a great last moment when Andrea goes to the vast doors to the outside world and looks out at the hum and thrum of the world - of magical, vigorous, Venice - and smiles, and goes back in. We do believe, then, that he has come to terms with his decision. What's more, he and we are aware that it is the worldliness of the Jesuit spirituality which he has adopted.

Not a lot happens in this film. There's very little shouting, and no sex. Daniel Day-Lewis would have had no need of his turbo-charged twin-veined frown, had he been in it. It doesn't bother to crackle with tension. It does look great, though. Partly, it captures the marbled luminosity and freshness of the real life Benedictine monastery (Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore) in which it was filmed. And there are some telling filmic moments, as when a cruise liner's decks fill the windows behind the novice master's head whilst he's enumerating the sins of the vulgar world, or some such. She’s the Carnival Liberty.

There are some serious oddities with the work. One is that the time is clearly now, but the young men and the order they are joining seem set in a piousness which belongs to an earlier age, and certainly a pre-Vatican II era. So though the young men are wearing modern (if very understated, almost purgatorially plain) clothes, they don't seem like modern young men. And the order seems too Jansenite - too unsmilingly severe - even for the spiritual SAS we think the Jesuits to be. We assume they have moved on a bit in recent years.

The answer seems to come from the novel, The Perfect Jesuit (1960 in Italian and 2001 in English), on which the film is based. It was written when the entire church was worrying about how wise and, well, Christian it was to make a fetish of being uptight. It might have been wiser to set the film in the same period as the novel, and then its themes of sneaking and hand-ringing would have seemed more natural and likely.

Granted that the film is set in the present, it is a further oddity that it is less erotic than the novel, in which Andrea's dim friend Zanna is also saint-like, butch and very sexy. Oh, and in the book, he gets eaten alive by a tumour and dies. In the novel, Andrea’s cleverer friend is agonising about whether the church can really carry off its modernising programme. The novel seems to be nudging a film-maker to choose between two radically different approaches. It could have spawned a movie which was an interesting meditation on the church in the 60's. That didn't happen.

Or a film could have explored the church's response to the modernity which actually unfolded. That didn't happen either. Instead we are given an anachronism. It is also intriguing to note, however, that the stilted wordiness of the characters' speech carries from the novel to the film, to good effect.

Just as in the case of Into Great Silence (2005/7) [reviewed here], this movie had the power to fill my local art-house, and to keep us enthralled.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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