Review: “Vive Le Cinema” film festival, final night, Saturday 18 September 2021, at the Chiostro del Rettorato, Piazza Tancredi, city of Lecce.

Sunday 19 September 2021

It was strikingly clear on my Saturday evening walk through the streets of Lecce that life has returned to something like normality again, including the feeling of vibrancy and elation you get in any good city or town on a Saturday night when the weather is temperate, and people feel free to associate with one another without fear or anxiety.

As of September 2021, at least ninety percent of the population of Puglia is vaccinated against Coronavirus with a “first jab”, and approximately eighty percent have had both vaccination jabs, excluding children under the age of twelve who are exempted (links for the official governmental sources for this information are provided at the end of this article). The introduction in August of stricter rules related to the “Green Pass”, which require people to show proof of vaccination to be allowed into any indoor public space, including open-air events, spurred most people who were sitting on the fence about vaccination to get it done.

There was a palpable feeling of relief last night…

The result of this is that people are socialising with more confidence and in a more relaxed way. There was a palpable feeling of relief last night– a great deal of laughter, an effervescent tone in conversation, and less concern about maintaining physical distance. I felt a little like I had missed a meeting, or maybe two meetings – my perception of the Covid situation was considerably darker, but I was glad to be surprised.

I have always loved going to the cinema, and to film festivals especially. Going to the Vive Le Cinema festival I had an experience something like continuity with other phases of my life. Lately, I have had an unsettling feeling of discontinuity with the temporality of the world and the temporality of my own life. Trying to be logical, I could attribute this to not having had the opportunity to see old friends from England or travel outside of Italy for two years. But I feel also it is something more a matter of the spirit – I am finding it difficult to feel a connection to the world as it is, which I feel, superstitiously perhaps, is related to my trouble feeling a connection to my former self.

I am talking here of a feeling of joy, of freedom from care, that comes from “being in the moment”

My former self is younger of course, and no doubt improved through the soft-focus lens of memory, but the thing I want most from him is that ability – an ability that comes I think from a certain feeling of assurance about one’s relevancy to the present – to be completely engaged in the present. I am talking here of a feeling of joy, of freedom from care, that comes from “being in the moment”. Film screenings and film festivals seem to be the only thing I have experienced in recent years that give me something like that experience, that sense of continuity with my past and – perhaps because of the feeling of substance that feeling engenders – connection with the present. Sharing a space with two-hundred or possibly more people, many dressed to the nines, in front of a cinema screen, with the company of a friend, in the beautiful surroundings of the courtyard of the Chiostro del Rettorato, I was for those three hours living happily in the present moment, with no thoughts of yesterday or tomorrow.

This was the last night of the festival, and the French film they screened was an animated feature called Josep (d. Aurel, 2020) , which like the rest of the films presented in the programme, was fairly new. Josep tells the story of a left-wing Spanish painter , Josep Bartoli, who is forced to flee Franco’s forces in Spain but is imprisoned in an internment camp on the French side of the Spanish-French border by the Vichy French forces. He is treated savagely by the Vichy guards, but one guard, the sensitive and compassionate Serge, decides to risk his own life to help him escape to Mexico, where Josep claims to have a friend, the artist Frida Kahlo.

Josep is brilliantly drawn and animated and its heart is in the right place. Josep Bartoli (1910-1995) was a real-life artist and was interred in a prison camp during the Second World War, though other events and characters seem fictionalized. The story is told in flashback from the present day to the internment camp where Serge meets Josep, but also includes further flashbacks to Spain before Josep’s internment and shifts in narrative perspective from one character to another, which makes it a little hard to follow. There is a lot of brutality in the film, which though probably authentic to the true-life experience of Josep Bartoli, sits a little uneasily with the tender scenes of warmth and humour more typical to animated features, and at times the film seems to lack pace, perhaps due to its picaresque style.

Documentary filmmaker Aissa Maiga (on stage, in dress) receives her prize for “best film” at the end of the evening.

On the other hand, the pace is perhaps suitable for what is a wistful, melancholy film. It certainly deserves an audience and critical respect, and it is perhaps just not my genre. I would have preferred to see the documentary that had been screened the night before, Marcher sur l’eau (d. Aissa Maiga, 2021), which is a documentary about the trek of a tribe from a remote village in Nigeria towards an underground lake, during a period of drought. The director won the “best film” award on the night I was there – no one had told her she was going to win and so she had to be hurriedly called to return from her own trek of the Lecce streets in, as my friend noted, rather beautiful high-heeled shoes.
The event was very professionally done, with a great-looking programme and image for the festival, and the organisers (which runs to a team of around fifty, not including volunteers) deserve all credit and the expansive support they received from various notable institutions including the Apulia Film Commission, The University of Salento, and the Museo Castromediano.


On percentage of population of Puglia currently vaccinated (as of September 2021)

Vive le cinema festival website:

Leaving Tricase (part 1)

Leaving Tricase (part 1)

Monday 6 September, 2021.

The day the beach umbrella died, my apartment, Tricase, early September 2021.

In which a meditation on leaving the coastal hamlet of Tricase after a two-year stay leads to a perspective on the city of Lecce, and a memory of a friend.

It is Sunday 5 September 2021, and I have begun writing this on a bus heading back to the hamlet of Tricase from the city of Lecce, a distance of 50 kilometres between these two points, a ride or drive of around an hour by the fastest route.

I was in Lecce for a weekend, to get my second Covid vaccination shot, spend some time with a friend and to try to get myself excited again about moving to Lecce.

I’ve been visiting this city regularly over the four years I have been living in the vicinity, working as an English language teacher. Lecce is a relatively small city, but that is part of its appeal. Outside of the summer season, its wide, oak-lined boulevards and small cobbled-stone streets are rarely empty, but hardly ever overcrowded. There is a relaxed and cultured atmosphere about the place, and indeed relaxation and culture are really the city’s main lures.

Promontory children’s playground, Porto Tricase, 16 July, 2021, at sunset.

Lecce is a fascinating city, but unlike the city of Bari to the north, it is not a city of industry and commerce. It has a university, some excellent cultural centres such as the Castromediano museum and the Bernadini public library, and is full of great restaurants, bars, enoteche (wine shops), delicatessens and boutique clothing stores. Mainly though, it is simply great to look at, and is efficiently maintained and policed – the streets are clean, and the average resident or visitor can feel pretty safe walking those streets.

However, in recent years, its appeal to students and the well-heeled has made Lecce a more expensive place to live than it was (I’m informed) ten or fifteen years ago. I’m having a hard time finding a decent flat at a price commensurate to the salary of an English language teacher and I am starting to wonder if I should consider a Plan B.

It was (at least in part) the desire for affordable accommodation that led me to go work in a small town in southern Italy in the first place. Now I feel driven (though with reservations) back to a city.

The reason for this has been a creeping feeling of desolation that overcame me, starting from the last Christmas period onwards.

I had been doing okay up to that point. I had completely abstained from alcohol for six months. I continued my project to read the complete works of Joseph Conrad. I stopped writing random pronouncements nobody was particularly interested in on social media. I went cycling to the coastal point of Marina Serra most days, a ninety-minute round trip. I lost weight, my hair seemed to have stopped falling out, I looked in the mirror and what I saw did not seem too bad, all things considered. I felt I had achieved a certain dignity and equilibrium.

House with the perfect view of the Adriatic sea, viewed from the crest of Marina Serra, 27 June, 2021.

I tried to be content in my roomy apartment… the local church bells chiming melodically….

But then, Christmas got to me. I tried to be content in my roomy apartment, with my soft drinks and coffee and books, and the local church bells chiming melodically, but the total loneliness and a sense of being a redundant individual in the world overwhelmed me like a typhoon.

You ask yourself that question – or rather, you don’t, but that question arrives, when the bells stop chiming: if you were to keel over right now on this floor and die of a heart attack, how long would it take for anyone to notice? This leads to further questions: Once they noticed, how many people would it affect? And for how long would it affect them? And what would be your contribution to this planet? What could anyone point to as something – or somebody – you developed or to which/whom you gave life? In short, would the results of your life so far add up to anything? The answers to these questions were sobering, as they say – and I was already sober, so I got out the bottle of wine that had been idling in the cupboard for six months and opened it.

They say alcoholism is a slow form of suicide, but it could be argued that, considering it’s slow enough to have time to turn things around, like Raymond Carver did in his last decade, it is still better than the fast version. A good friend of mine, whom I’ll call Miranda (as I have never known anyone called that), died in the autumn of 2019.  She was an English language teacher like me, except she was a lot better than me. She was an examiner for one of the two accrediting English language exam boards, and when not teaching, she travelled all over the world for her examiner work, a well-paid occupation. She had a cosy ground-floor flat, in a desirable area of southern England, with a garden, and she had finished paying off the mortgage on it many years before. She had a home that no one could take away from her, and the security of being a sought-after member of the higher tier of her profession.  

She was talented. She wrote poems and short plays. She did voluntary work helping refugees to learn English. She was intelligent, she was well-read, she was compassionate, she was witty, and she was much-loved by colleagues, neighbours, and friends, of which she had many.

Perhaps she felt it was something that you could learn how to handle, with the use of intellect

But Miranda was lonely – I can say that, based on what followed. She must have been – deeply, heartbreakingly lonely. Perhaps she was only vaguely aware of it, or perhaps she felt it was something you could live with – a lifelong condition that you could learn how to handle, with the use of intellect, as is tentatively suggested in the title essay of a book of essays by Jonathan Franzen she had loaned me in 2017, How to Be Alone (2002). If my memory serves me well, Franzen’s essay was more focussed on the difficulty of maintaining some private life and private thoughts in the new era (as it was, back then) of internet sharing and “over-sharing” than the actual problem of loneliness. I remember thinking that although Franzen’s intelligence was impressive, and he had clearly experienced some of life’s “ups and downs”, in his way, the author did not strike me as a man who had ever experienced real, extended loneliness. For such people – and I believe I was once one of those people – “being alone” may be imagined something like a holiday on an exotic island – enjoyable, because you know that you are not marooned there.

Miranda had at least one boyfriend in the five or six years I knew her, but the relationship didn’t last long. Her greatest love seemed to be reserved for her dog. I saw a series of posts she made on Instagram about her dog being ill, in 2019, and the last post I saw was posted soon after her dog had died.

She had a funeral for her dog, with several bouquets of flowers, in her garden. It seemed as if it were something she had done alone. I posted a message of support in the thread of that post because I could see Miranda was distraught, but I didn’t realise just how inconsolable. I was busy working for an intense university summer programme some ninety kilometres away, and intended to visit her in the brief hiatus between the end of my job, and my return to Italy. I felt sorry for her loss, but felt she would probably have started to move forward with her life by the time I saw her, in three or four weeks.

Less than a fortnight later I received an email from my former manager at the school Miranda and I had worked at– the email said that Miranda had died, and Miranda’s father and brother were inviting all her colleagues from the school to attend the funeral.

At the funeral, which I was able to attend (fortunately, for my return flight was booked for the very same evening), I saw at least a dozen of my former colleagues and there seemed to be at least a hundred and fifty people in attendance. As I said, Miranda was loved by many. The cause of Miranda’s death was never mentioned and of course, it was not the right time or place to ask. However, as Miranda was only 58 years old at the time of her death and had no health problems anyone knew about, and as I had read her last messages on Instagram, I strongly suspected (as I think did some of my colleagues) that she had committed suicide.

When I researched the facts on the Internet – because I needed to know the truth – the website of the established local newspaper confirmed that this was the case. No reference was made to the death of her dog as the catalyst that led to Miranda taking her own life, just the cause of death, which was reported to have been an overdose of sleeping pills. This led me to believe that Miranda had been planning her suicide for a while, maybe during her dog’s period of illness or maybe even before; it takes time to gather enough sleeping pills to effectively kill oneself, if one only deals with respectable doctors, and I find it hard to believe she knew any other kind.

Miranda’s suicide affected me and continues to affect me. I miss her. But more than that, I wish I could have helped her. There were friends closer to her than me, and yet we were (I believe) close friends.

Miranda was loved by many people, but this was not enough.

Miranda was loved by many people, but this was not enough. It was a sincere love, but it was not a strong enough love. It was what is sometimes called affection, or perhaps gratitude. The hungry heart cannot be fed on this alone, and it led Miranda to focus her strongest love on her pet dog. Pets, of course, love a kind master or mistress unconditionally and unreservedly, with none of the complications or vacillations of other human beings. When her dog died, for Miranda it was the end of hope for the kind of love she needed. She felt, I believe, she was facing slow starvation – and she preferred a quick death to slow starvation.

How did so many of us – intelligent, kind, generous, not-unattractive people – end up coming to this kind of desolation in our later years? This is something I will explore further – and come back to leaving Tricase – in part two.

Community and the individual: Reflections on viewing “The Elephant Man” (1980) at the Ex Convento dei Teatini (Via Vittorio Emanuele II, 34), city of Lecce, Tuesday 6 July, 9pm, 2021.

Image: Ready for the screening in the courtyard of an ex-convent, city of Lecce.

21 August 2021.

It was almost a year to the day (7 July 2020) that I saw my last film, and it was in this same place, the Ex-Convento dei Teatini, which, as you might have guessed, was a former convent.

This elegant Baroque convent (or monastery- in fact I have heard there were also nuns domiciled there at some point) was built as a domiciliary for the Teatini Fathers (or “Theatine” Fathers, in English), before their order was suppressed under Napoleonic rule. Construction began in the last decade of the 16th century and was completed around the mid-17th century.

After the building was closed for good as a Theatine convent/monastery in 1866, it was made use of, sequentially, as a barracks, as a school and as a site of municipal offices. More recently the commune of Lecce has allowed the elegant courtyard to be used for theatrical performances and films screenings.

As a fan of the independent DB D’Essai cinema in Lecce, which presents mainly “art-house” films, I was concerned for the cinema’s ability to sustain itself through the long closure of regional cinemas, decreed by the regional government of Puglia, in response to the Covid pandemic in 2020.

Partly in response, it would seem, the DB D’Essai took advantage of the cloudless and balmy summer nights in Lecce to arrange a series of open-air screenings in this space, adhering to social-distancing rules by placing seats two metres apart, and it was there I saw an “original version” screening of a reissued print of Stanley Kubrick’s classic Cold War satire, Dr Strangelove (1964).

Between that screening on 7 July 2020 and the screening of David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980) on 6 July 2021 I really saw no other film, at least by design. The one other film I saw, a few weeks after the Dr Strangelove screening, was a screening of Sergio Leone’s For A Few Dollars More (1965) I stumbled upon in the Piazza del Popolo, in the town of Specchia, presented in tribute to the film’s legendary composer Ennio Morricone, who had recently passed away. However, this was not a “closed” screening – in other words the film was screened at one end of an open piazza where many people were cooling off under the stars, after another extremely hot and humid day, listening to pop music, conversing with friends – so I consider that event more an ambient experience that a film viewing in a real sense.

Open screening of “For a Few Dollars More” in the main piazza, Specchia, July 2020.

You may wonder why I only saw three films in the period of a year, when I clearly have a strong interest in them. The answer to that is that although I love film, and always have, I very rarely watch a film at home. I bought a DVD- player last year, but I used it only a handful of times to watch a half-dozen films during the starkest part of the Covid restrictions in March/April 2020. I don’t subscribe to any film streaming service. A long time ago now, perhaps a decade ago, I started to find watching films on my own a lonely and depressing experience, unlike reading fiction or poetry, where I feel – if the work is good – that I am engaged in a form of direct communication with the author.

“Film, as a medium, is made to be received communally, in relationship to others,”

Perhaps it is the intensity of the level of engagement when reading, diminishing one’s self-awareness or self-consciousness – or perhaps it is the medium itself that makes the difference: fiction and poetry is written to be read by people alone; it is an intimate medium that requires the receptor to be solitary, to disengage from others, in order to engage with the work. Therefore, when reading, one feels one is embroiled in a valiant and time-honoured solitary endeavour.

Films, by contrast, are made with the intention (for most filmmakers, even now in the “simultaneous home/cinema release” era) of being seen in a cinema or public space, but if at home, in company – with family, friends, lovers or spouses. Film, as a medium, is made, in other words, to be received communally, in relationship to others, and in this way, it is closer to theatre or live music performance than the medium of fiction or poetry.

Therefore, when watching a film alone, separated from other people, I am distressingly aware of my own separation from others, and regardless of the artistic merits of the film, the activity seems irrelevant and unworthy of the time left to me on this earth – time wasted. Film, at least for me, needs to be experienced with others for its spell to work as intended.

For this reason, when the opportunity has arisen to see a film with others, between periods of government-enforced social distancing or “lock-down”, it has felt like an especially rare and moving experience.

It made me think about the meaning of “community”. This space was once the domicile of a community of religious brothers; on this night it was the temporary haven of a community of film-buffs. This community of film-buffs were (for the most part) members of the wider community of the city or province of Lecce. That wider community, outside the walls of this ex-convent, were at that moment avidly watching the European cup semi-final game between Italy and Spain with friends and family, either at home or outside the bars and cafes in the surrounding streets and piazzas. A community of football aficionados – at least when Italy is in strong contention to win the European cup (which it did, in the next match). There were communities within communities there that evening.

And even I was not completely alone. A friend of mine was with me. She, like me, is not from Lecce, or the region of Puglia – we were both “sconsciuti” – strangers to the place, trying to find our “tribe” in the city, trying to connect (while trying to retain some dignity about it, reminding me of the lines from an old Bob Dylan song, “I am just a poor boy, baby/ Trying to connect/ But I certainly don’t want you thinking/That I haven’t got any respect”).

Several weeks after this screening, when considering how to write about this experience in a way that made it more than a simple review, I realised this was the connection, thematically, between the narrative of The Elephant Man and the subjective experience of watching the film in this scenario. On the surface, there could not be any more incongruous difference between the stark, vaporous, monochromatic world of industrial-era Victorian London, as depicted by David Lynch – peopled with grimy villains and subliterate barroom desperados on the one hand, and a starchy God-fearing middle class on the other – and the well-educated and broad-minded twenty-first century audience, watching the film under the stars at the peak of summer, within the walls of one of Lecce’s most unblemished and elegant edifices of the pre-industrial age.

However, the story that played out on the screen is also a story of isolation and community. Lynch’s previous feature film to The Elephant Man, his debut low-budget feature Eraserhead (1977), had a Kafkaesque ambience and narrative, and although The Elephant Man was an “optioned property”, as they say in the film business, that was offered to Lynch, rather than from an original idea like Eraserhead, it has a similarly Kafkaesque protagonist and scenario. The material fit Lynch’s sensibility like the proverbial glove.

In Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa’s feelings of alienation are externalized one day when he wakes up to find he as transformed into a giant dung beetle – disgusting and abhorrent to the world. In The Elephant Man, John Merrick (John Hurt) was born terribly deformed, and at the inciting incident of the story, when Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) first sets sight on him in a dingy circus freak show, he has never known any reaction to himself from the public but disgust and abhorrence, and an appalled fascination with the “otherness” of him that allows him to survive in a meagre and subhuman way as an attraction in the freak-show of the immoral, cruel and self-pitying impresario, Mr Bytes (Freddie Jones).

For Merrick, communities have always been something to be feared – they are the people that come to stare at him, and who would probably do him physical harm if he were found anywhere but it in the sordid circus that is his refuge. In the course of the narrative, Treves rescues him from Bytes’ control and is able to make him a permanent ward of the Royal Alexandra Hospital, after the personal intervention of Princess Alexandra of Wales (Helen Ryan).

Some of the hospital staff, in particular the chief matron “Mothershead” (Wendy Hiller), and Dr Treves and his wife (Hannah Gordon) become a small protective community for Merrick at the hospital. He opens up his soul in response to their kindness. Although he is physically incurable, he develops as a human being under their influence and the influence of certain people that visit him, such as the stage actress Mrs Kendall (Anne Bancroft). He starts reading Shakespeare, he creates a model of the church outside his window, using his imagination to complete those parts he cannot see from the window. He calls Treves, with strong feeling and conviction, in great contrast to the withdrawn, fearful person Treves first encountered, “my friend”. The value of community, at its best, to the soul of the individual, and the individual’s incompleteness without a nurturing community, is implicit in all this.

At the same time, community can also turn on the outsider viciously, and at the peak of his spiritual victory, Merrick has to suffer being brutalized by a section of London’s underclass, who after guzzling cheap booze in a nearby saloon, are emboldened to enter his chambers at the hospital (“for a price”) by the hardboiled and opportunistic night porter (Michael Elphick).

There are many ways to interpret a film, and my focus on the theme of the fraught interrelation between the individual and the community in The Elephant Man seems to derive from the experience of it that night, where the sense of community felt possible, but also ephemeral and difficult for a stranger to connect with (thinking again of that Dylan song). However, it could be argued, having opened this particular line of enquiry into The Elephant Man, that you can see the same theme repeated, to a greater or lesser degree, in most of David Lynch’s films – but most strongly present, perhaps, in Blue Velvet (1986), Twin Peaks (1990-1993) and Mulholland Drive (2001). I also thought recently of Kurosawa’s film The Seven Samurai (1954) in the same context. At a time when film screenings in cinemas or public spaces seems on the verge of becoming a thing of the past, due to both the pressures of controlling Covid and a general trend toward the convenience of home-viewing options, such events as this one seem precious and profound, almost like the religious services that once took place in that same courtyard, three hundred years ago.