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       Contempt, p.8

           Alberto Moravia
 
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  Battista was of medium height, but with very broad shoulders, a long body and short legs; whence the similarity to a large ape which had earned him the nicknames I have mentioned. His face, too, was a little like that of an ape: his hair, leaving the two sides of his forehead bare, came down rather low in the middle; thick eyebrows, with a sort of pensive mobility of their own; small eyes; a short, broad nose; and a large but lipless mouth, thin as a slit made by a knife and slightly protruding. Battista’s figure was characterized by a stomach rather than a paunch; by which I mean that he habitually thrust out his chest and the upper part of his abdomen. His hands were short and thick and covered with black hair which continued upwards beyond his wrists into his sleeves; once when we had been at the sea together I had noticed that this hair bristled on his shoulders and chest and came right down to his belly. This man who looked so brutish expressed himself in a gentle, insinuating, conciliatory voice, with a polished, almost foreign accent, for Battista was not a Roman. It was in this unforeseeable, surprising voice that I detected an indication of the astuteness and subtlety of which I have spoken.

  Battista was not alone. In front of the desk was sitting someone whom he introduced to me by the name of Rheingold. I knew very well who he was, although this was the first time I had met him. Rheingold was a German director who, in the pre-Nazi film era, had directed, in Germany, various films of the “colossal” type, which had had a considerable success at the time. He was certainly not in the same class as the Pabsts and Langs; but, as a director, he was worthy of respect, not in the least commercial, and with ambitions with which one might not perhaps agree but which were nevertheless serious. After the advent of Hitler, nothing had been heard of him. It was said that he was working in Hollywood, but no film under his signature had been shown in recent years in Italy. And now here he was, popping up strangely in Battista’s office. While the latter was talking to us, I looked at Rheingold with curiosity. Have you ever, in some old print, seen the face of Goethe? Just so, just as noble, as regular, as Olympian, was the face of Rheingold; and, like that of Goethe, it was framed in a fringe of clean and shining silver hair. It was, in fact, the head of a great man; except that, on closer examination, I became aware that its majesty and nobility were lacking in substance: the features were slightly coarse and at the same time spongy, flimsy, as though made of cardboard, like those of a mask; giving, in fact, the impression that there was nothing behind them, like the faces of the enormous heads that are carried round by tiny little men at carnival-times. Rheingold rose to shake me by the hand, giving a little bow with his head only, and a slight click of the heels, in the stiff German manner; and then I realized that he was quite a small man, although his shoulders, as if to match the majesty of his face, were very wide. I noticed also that, as he greeted me, he smiled at me in an extremely affable manner, with a broad smile like a half-moon, showing two rows of very regular and altogether too-white teeth which I at once imagined, I don’t know why, to be false. But immediately afterwards, when he sat down again, the smile disappeared in a flash, leaving no traces—just as the moon is obliterated in the sky by a cloud passing in front of it—giving place to a very hard, unpleasant expression, both dictatorial and exacting.

  Battista, following his usual method, started off in a roundabout way. Nodding towards Rheingold, he said: “Rheingold and I were just talking about Capri...do you know Capri, Molteni?”

  “Yes, a little,” I answered.

  “I have a villa in Capri,” went on Battista, “and I was just saying to Rheingold what an enchanting place Capri is. It’s a place where even a man like me, taken up as I am with business affairs, feels himself becoming a bit of a poet.” It was one of Battista’s favorite habits to profess an enthusiasm for fine and beautiful things, for the things, in fact, that belong to the sphere of the ideal; but what disconcerted me most was that this enthusiasm, to which he called attention in so sure a manner, was perfectly sincere, though always, somehow or other, connected with purposes that were not at all disinterested. After a moment, as though moved by his own words, he resumed: “Luxuriant nature, a marvelous sky, a sea that is always blue...and flowers, flowers everywhere. I think that if I were like you, Molteni, a writer, I should like to live in Capri and take my inspiration from it. It’s strange that painters, instead of painting the Capri landscape, should give us all these ugly pictures that no one can understand. In Capri, pictures are ready made, so to speak...All you have to do is to put yourself in front of the landscape and copy it...”

  I said nothing; I looked at Rheingold out of the corner of my eye and saw him nod his approval, his smile hanging in the middle of his face like a sickle moon in a cloudless sky. Battista went on; “I’m always intending to spend a few months there, away from business, without doing anything, but I never manage it. We in the city here lead a life that is altogether against nature. Man isn’t made to live amongst files of papers, in an office...and the people of Capri do, in fact, look far happier than we do. You ought to see them in the evening, when they come out to take a walk—young men and girls, smiling, serene, attractive gay. It’s because they have a life made up of small things, with small ambitions, small interests, small troubles. My goodness, how lucky they are!”

  There was silence again. Then Battista resumed: “As I was saying, I have a villa in Capri and I’m never there, worse luck. I must have stayed there just about a couple of months altogether, since I acquired it. I was just saying to Rheingold that the villa would be the best possible place for writing the script of the film. The landscape would inspire you...especially because, as I was pointing out to Rheingold, the landscape is in harmony with the subject of the film.”

  “One can work anywhere, Signor Battista,” said Rheingold; “certainly Capri might be useful...especially if, as I think, we take the exterior shots of the film in the Bay of Naples.”

  “Exactly...Rheingold, however, says he would rather go to a hotel, because he has his own habits and, besides, he likes to be alone at certain times and to think over the work by himself. But I think that you, Molteni, might stay at the villa, together with your wife. It would be a pleasure for me, if at last there was someone living there...The villa has every convenience, and you would have no difficulty in finding a woman to look after you...”

  At once I thought of Emilia, as always; and I felt that a stay in a lovely villa in Capri might perhaps solve many difficulties. What I am saying is true: all of a sudden, for no reason, I was absolutely certain that it would indeed solve them. It was therefore with genuine warmth that I thanked Battista. “Thank you,” I said. “I also think that Capri would be the best possible place for writing the script...and my wife and I would be delighted to stay at your villa.”

  “Excellent; that’s understood, then,” said Battista, holding up his hand, with a gesture that vaguely offended me, as if to check a flood of gratitude which I really had no intention of letting loose. “That’s understood; you’ll go to Capri and I’ll come and join you there. And now let us talk a little about the film.”

  “High time too!” I thought, and looked closely at Battista. I had, now, an obscure feeling of remorse at having accepted his invitation so promptly. I did not know why, but I guessed instinctively that Emilia would have disapproved of my hastiness. “I ought to have told him I must think it over,” I said to myself with some irritation, “that I must first consult my wife.” And the warmth with which I had accepted the invitation seemed to me misplaced, a thing to be almost ashamed of. Battista, meanwhile, was saying: “We’re all agreed that something new in the way of films has got to be found. The after-the-war period is now over, and people are feeling the need of a new formula. Everyone—just to give an example—is a little tired of neo-realism. Now, by analyzing the reasons for which we have grown tired of the neo-realistic film, we may perhaps arrive at an understanding of what the new formula might be.”

  I knew, as I have already mentioned, that Battista’s favorite way of attacking a s
ubject was always an indirect one. He was not a cynical type of man, or at any rate he was determined not to appear so. Thus it was very difficult for him to speak openly, as did many other producers franker than he, about financial matters: the question of profit, no less important to him than to the others—in fact, perhaps even more important—remained always shrouded in a discreet obscurity; and if—let us suppose—the subject of a film did not seem to him sufficiently profitable, he would never say, like the others: “This subject won’t put a penny into the cash-box,” but rather: “I don’t like this subject for such and such a reason”; and the reasons were always of an aesthetic or moral order. Nevertheless, the question of profit was always the final touchstone; and the proof of this was to be seen when, after many discussions upon the beautiful and the good in the art of the film, after a good many of what I called Battista’s smoke-screens, the choice fell, invariably, upon the solution that held the best commercial possibilities. Owing to this, I had for some time now lost all interest in the considerations, often extremely long and complicated, put forward by Battista on films beautiful or ugly, moral or immoral; and I waited patiently for him to reach the point where, always and inevitably, he came to a halt—the question of economic advantage. And this time I thought: “He certainly won’t say that the producers are tired of the neo-realistic film because it isn’t profitable...let’s see what he will say.” Battista, in fact, went on, after a moment’s reflection: “In my opinion, everyone is rather tired of the neo-realistic film mainly because it’s not a healthy type of film.”

  He stopped and I looked sideways at Rheingold: he did not blink an eyelid. Battista, who had intended, by pausing, to stress the word “healthy,” now went on to explain it. “When I say that the neo-realistic film is not healthy, I mean that it is not a film that inspires people with courage to live, that increases their confidence in life. The neo-realistic film is depressing, pessimistic, gloomy. Apart from the fact that it represents Italy as a country of ragamuffins—to the great joy of foreigners who have every sort of interest in believing that our country really is a country of ragamuffins—apart from this fact which, after all, is of considerable importance, it insists too much on the negative sides of life, on all that is ugliest, dirtiest, most abnormal in human existence. It is, in short, a pessimistic, unhealthy type of film, a film which reminds people of their difficulties instead of helping them to overcome them.”

  I looked at Battista and once again I remained uncertain as to whether he really believed the things he was saying or only pretended to believe them. There was sincerity of a kind in what he said; perhaps it was only the sincerity of a man who easily convinces himself of the things that are useful to him; nevertheless, sincerity there was. Battista went on speaking, in that voice of strangely inhuman timbre, almost metallic even in its sweetness. “Rheingold has made a suggestion which interested me...He has noticed that in recent times films with subjects taken from the Bible have been highly successful. They have been, in fact, the best money-makers,” he observed at this point, almost pensively, but as though opening a parenthesis to which he himself wished no importance to be paid. “And why? In my opinion, because the Bible remains always the healthiest book that has ever been written in this world...And so Rheingold said to me, the Anglo-Saxon races have the Bible, and you Mediterranean peoples, on the other hand, have Homer. Isn’t that so?” He interrupted himself and turned towards Rheingold, as if uncertain that he was quoting him correctly.

  “That’s it, exactly,” confirmed Rheingold, not without an expression of slight anxiety on his smiling face.

  “To you Mediterranean peoples,” continued Battista, still quoting Rheingold, “Homer is what the Bible is to the Anglo Saxons...And so why shouldn’t we make a film from, for instance, the Odyssey?”

  There was silence. Astonished, I wanted to gain time, and so I asked, with an effort: “The whole Odyssey, or an episode from the Odyssey?”

  “We’ve discussed the matter,” Battista answered promptly, “and we’ve come to the conclusion that it will be best to take into consideration the Odyssey as a whole. But that doesn’t matter. What matters most,” he went on, raising his voice, “is that, in re-reading the Odyssey, I’ve at last understood what I’ve been looking for for so long without realizing it...something that I felt could not be found in neo-realistic films—something, for instance, that I’ve never found in the subjects that you, Molteni, have suggested to me from time to time recently...something that I, in fact, have been feeling—without being able to explain it to myself—have been feeling was needed in the cinema as it is needed in life—poetry.”

  I looked again at Rheingold: he was still smiling, perhaps a little more broadly than before, and was nodding his approval. I hazarded, rather dryly: “In the Odyssey, as one knows, there is plenty of poetry. The difficulty is to get it over into the film.”

  “Quite right,” said Battista, taking up a ruler from the desk and pointing it at me; “quite right...but to do that, there are you two, you and Rheingold. I know there’s poetry in it...it’s up to you to pull it out.”

  I replied: “The Odyssey is a world in itself...one can get out of it what one wants. It depends what point of view one brings to it.”

  Battista seemed now to be disconcerted by my lack of enthusiasm, and was examining me with ponderous intentness as though trying to guess what purposes I was concealing behind my coldness. At last he appeared to be postponing his scrutiny to a later occasion, for he rose to his feet and, making his way around the table, started walking up and down the room, his head held high, his hands thrust into the hip pockets of his trousers. We turned to look at him; and, still walking up and down, he resumed: “What struck me above all in the Odyssey is that Homer’s poetry is always spectacular...and when I say spectacular, I mean it has something in it that infallibly pleases the public. Take for example the Nausicaa episode. All those lovely girls dressed in nothing at all, splashing about in the water under the eyes of Ulysses who is hiding behind a bush. There, with slight variations, you have a complete Bathing Beauties scene. Or take Polyphemus: a monster with only one eye, a giant, an ogre...why, it’s King Kong, one of the greatest pre-war successes. Or take again Circe, in her castle...why, she’s Antinea, in Atlantis. That’s what I call spectacle. And this spectacle, as I said, is not merely spectacle but poetry too...” Much excited, Battista stopped in front of us and said solemnly: “That’s how I see a film of the Odyssey produced by Triumph Films.”

  I said nothing. I realized that, to Battista, poetry meant something very different from what I understood by it; and that, according to his conception of it, the Odyssey of Triumph Films would be a film based upon the big Biblical and costume films of Hollywood, with monsters, naked women, seduction scenes, eroticism and grandiloquence. Fundamentally, I told myself, Battista’s taste was still that of the Italian producers of the time of D’Annunzio, how indeed could it have been otherwise? In the meantime he had made his way back around the desk and sat down again, and was saying to me: “Well, Molteni, what do you say to it?”

  Anyone who knows the world of the cinema knows that there are films of which one can be certain, even before a single word of the script has been written, that they will be brought to a final conclusion; while there are others which, even after the contract has been signed and hundreds of pages of the screen-play completed, will equally surely never be finished. So now I, with the experience of the professional script-writer, recognized immediately, even while Battista was speaking, that this Odyssey film was, precisely, one of those which are much discussed but, in the end, never made. Why should this be so? I could not have said; perhaps it was because of the inordinate ambitiousness of the work, perhaps it was Rheingold’s physical appearance, so majestic when he was seated, so meager when he stood up. I felt that, like Rheingold, the film would have an imposing beginning and a paltry conclusion, thus justifying the well-known remark about the Siren: desinit in piscem, she ends up in a fish. And then, w
hy did Battista want to make such a film? I knew that he was fundamentally very prudent, and determined to make money without taking risks. Probably, I thought, beneath his desire there lay the hope of obtaining solid financial support, perhaps even American support, by playing upon the great name of Homer—the Bible, as Rheingold had remarked, of the Mediterranean peoples. But on the other hand I knew that Battista, no different from other producers in this respect, would find some pretext, supposing the film were never made, for refusing to give me any remuneration for my hard work. It always happened like that: if the film failed to come off, payments also failed to come off, and the producer, generally, suggested transferring the emolument for the already completed script to other work to be done in the future; and the poor script-writer, forced by necessity, did not dare to refuse. I said to myself, therefore, that I must in any case forearm myself by asking for a contract and, above all, an advance; and that to achieve this goal there was only one method: to place difficulties in the way, to set a high price upon my collaboration. So I answered, tartly: “I think it’s a very good idea.”

 
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