I am a fan of Andrew Graham- Dixon’s television appearances so when the opportunity to hear him speak at a Literature event came up last year I went. His subject was Caravaggio and his paintings. He was fascinating so I was keen to read the book behind the talk.
‘Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane’ is a comprehensive biography, impressive because so many parts of the artist’s life are still a mystery and are likely to remain that way. What makes this book worth reading, though, are the descriptions of the paintings and the explanation of the context in which they were created.
I found myself at the end of a very large room when I heard the author speak. The slides of the paintings were too far away from me to appreciate and I found myself listening rather than looking. It worked for me. In the case of the book, there are photographs of the paintings but they are quite small. I found myself looking up the picture on-line and reading in front of the computer! Andrew Graham- Dixon is very good at drawing your attention to the detail or the item that would otherwise be missed.
The political and religious (pretty much the same thing in this place and time) are explained, especially when they show how creative Caravaggio in this period. Here was an artist who worked for the great and the good of the church and mixed with the poor and down trodden. He painted prostitutes and gay lovers into works of art that found their way to the houses of the rich or the chapels of the princes of the church and subsequently on to the great art collections of the world.
This is a book to take seriously and a book to take time over but it is worth is for the insights from an intellectual.
Thinking of Rose Tremain reminded me of the first of her books I read. It was a children’s book, if that label is needed, and is, I think, the only one she has written. In any case, it signaled to me that this was a writer worth following.
‘Journey to the Volcano’ is the story of George who is taken by his mother, without his father’s knowledge, to Sicily where she came from. She is following her intuition that her son needs to spend time with her family before it is too late. Her own mother, George’s Nonna, is quite old. The volcano is a volatile place and the brooding mountain hangs over the village.
We follow George to Italy but also see the effect on his father. The story of how his parents met is relayed and the differences in their temperaments is shown in their different approaches to their son.
In the end, it is George who has the insights. The drama in the story comes from a significant event. When the summer ends, George has much to reflect on but so too does his father and his mother. This a journey that changes them all.
‘Journey to the Volcano’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This novel by Jamila Gavin is called an epic on the front cover of the version I have and I do not think this is misplaced. I could see this story of spies and intrigue making a very good film or television series.
The story centres around young Filippo whose family is in dire straits after the disappearance of his father into India many years ago. Geronimo Veraneo is a jeweller in search of precious stones, hence the trip to India to find them. He never returns and the family fear he is a prisoner of an Afghan warlord. His wife refuses to believe he is dead even though her son-in-law wants to have him declared so and thereby inherit the family fortune. He believes the family holds a precious diamond, the Blood Stone of the title, and he wants to find it. He has spies among the servants but is unable to track it down.
When news reaches them that their father is still alive, it is decided that Filippo should be the one to travel to India to pay the diamond as ransom money. The blood stone is sewn into his head and the adventure begins.
It is unclear who to trust but young Filippo makes the journey across the Middle East from Italy to India.
There are sub-plots involving the daughter married to the unscrupulous son-in-law, Filippo’s friend and his family, and the brothers who are apprentice jewellers. Like other stories by Jamila Gavin, there is the crossing of borders, both physical and cultural but the main narrative is one of adventure and intrigue.
‘The Blood Stone’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This wonderful documentary is both sweet and very sad. By contrasting normal life in Lampedusa, an island off Sicily in Italy, with the refugee crisis, director Gianfranco Rosi has made a film that shows the human aspects of newspaper headlines.
Two locals in particular dominate the film: a young boy through whose eyes we see ‘normal’ Lampedusan life; and a doctor who comes into contact with refugees because of his vocation.
What makes the film so powerful is the way it shows the details of island life and then the logistics of rescuing migrants; time is taken over both. As the film progresses, the two strands support each other to make a central point that this migrant crisis is taking place among us. People die trying to cross the Mediterranean. Apart from one small scene where the doctor talks about his work in relation to the migrants brought ashore from their un-seaworthy boat, the two worlds do not meet so we do not find out what local people think of the crisis. This is not the point, however, and it serves to remind us that our lives often continue oblivious to the pain of others.
This 1998 Canadian film tells the lives of people in five countries over four centuries who come into contact with the red violin of the title. The instrument was made in Italy in the seventeenth century. In this segment, the story is told in Italian of the violin maker and his wife and child. We find out why the violin is red, a particularly sad part of the film, before moving on a century to Vienna where we meet a young boy who is a musical prodigy. He is given the violin by the monks of the orphanage where he lives. He has a bright future and his music master sees a great future for them both. Another tragedy strikes, though, and the violin moves on to Oxford in Britain.
From Oxford in the late nineteenth century to Shanghai, China in the grip of the cultural revolution and on to Montreal, Canada in the late 90s, or what would have been the present at the time of the film’s release, we follow the violin as it passes from one owner to another.
What the film does, rather cleverly, is to show the importance of music in the lives of all sorts of people. Over the centuries, the violin becomes more valuable, especially as stories about its provenance emerge. The owners throughout its history see the instrument not as a valuable item in itself but essential because of what they create on it. In the final scenes in the auction house it seems as if this important message has been lost.
Episodic films can be problematic; if one segment is much weaker than the rest, the whole film is affected. In ‘The Red Violin’, though, each part of the story serves the greater narrative. It was directed by Francois Girard with a screenplay by Don McKellar. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I saw this movie one late night in an Oxford cinema back in the early 80s. The film. itself, was released in 1971 but I saw it when I was a student, having first read the novel by Thomas Mann. I was always keen to see a performance by Dirk Bogarde and I was fascinated by the fact that he turned his back on a career in popular films, he chose an art house route, one that involved him in great work like this picture.
It was directed by Visconti so the visuals are amazing. The subject matter of the novella translates well to film since dialogue is at a minimum and the interior monologue becomes slow moments of focus on expressions. Bogarde’s face is the most important ‘tool’ in the film. The central conceit is that the main character, a composer in Venice to recuperate, observes a pretty boy with his family of older sisters and mother and becomes fixated with him since he is a thing of beauty.
The difficulty of translating this to film is that beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder and the final version has to reflect one person’s vision. Yet Bjorn Andreson, chosen for his looks, does a good job of looking like a pretty young man might in the early years of the twentieth century. What is convincing about the film is the notion that an artist can be transfixed by beauty.
The ending is tragic but as the whole film has a melancholic feel, somewhat at odds with the theme of artistic beauty. ‘Death in Venice’, directed by Luchino Visconti is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This Italian film from 2012 is a brilliant study of politics in the unusual form of a group of prisoners rehearsing for a performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It won the Golden Bear in Berlin. Filmed in black and white, with moments in colour, the directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani used real prisoners as members of the cast. This contributed to a sense of unease as some of them had been convicted for terrible crimes. However, here they were liberated, to some extent, by creating a work of art. The subject matter of the play they perform is also given an extra dimension when we know that the actors may have committed violent crimes themselves.
The film has a traditional story arc; we see the play through from casting to final performance before an audience invited in from the outside. Yet, the distinction between drama and non- fiction is blurred so it is not always clear if we are seeing a fly on the wall documentary.
Part of the film shows the rehearsals but as the play moves to its most dramatic moment, the action is transposed to corridors and cells of the prison and, once again, the distinction between drama and documentary is blurred.
The most poignant line comes near the end of the film when the actor (!) we have seen play Cassius returns to his cell and says, “Since I have discovered art, this cell has turned into a prison”. The film ends with the convicts being escorted back, the play no longer available to them.
‘Caesar Must Die’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?