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Pupi Avati:Comforting love tale
ITALIAN CINEMA at once evokes a handful of names. Vittorio de Sica, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and Nanni Moretti got the world to look at their powerful array of work. Roberto Benigni may not be in their league, but his recent, "Life is Beautiful", brought him under the spotlight. Italy added one more honour to its celluloid crown. In comparison, Pupi Avati may seem like a poor, neglected cousin of these great Italian masters whose neo-realism added a new meaning to entertainment. But Avati's latest creation, "A Heart Elsewhere", which was part of Cannes's prestigious competition in May, had something interesting to say.
In a world ruled by utterly selfish motives, Avati's hero, the son of the Papal tailor, demonstrates a kind of love that is perhaps possible today merely in one's romantic imagination.
Nello is 35, and still a virgin. His father fretting over the possibility of dying heirless sends the young man to his native Bologna in the hope that he would find a wife.
Nello is uncomfortable with the ways of women, but falls in love with a blind beauty, and the story in what can be seen as a classic Merchant-Ivory style takes a strange turn. Admittedly, Avati, who is in his mid-60s, sets his narrative in 1920 Bologna, but insists in the course of an interview to this correspondent that such selfless love can happen even now. ``It does happen'', he smiles.
One is never sure, given modern life's complexities and uncertainties that often lead to erratic and unpredictable human behaviour. What one is certain though, is Avati's sketch of his female protagonist, blind Angela, who uses Nello as a pawn in her game of revenge and deceit.
Has Avati ever met someone like her? The Italian auteur winks, perhaps to indicate that if there was an Angela in his life, he would rather let her be wherever she is. But, yes, his movie has a biographical streak in it. ``When I was young, I had a lot of problems in dealing with people. I was shy, nervous and almost incapable of relating with others'', Avati says. Yet, Avati feels that his `shy days' helped him enormously to observe how the rest of the world lived, the key ingredient to be a writer or filmmaker.
``I think it helped me to have talked so less in my youth, for I saw and studied how men and women behaved and punched all that in my memory," Avati avers.
Nello's story was inspired by not only Avati's early personality, but also a story his parents told him when he was a boy. ``They used to tell me about a hospice for blind people where dances were held once a week to provide company for the young women who lived there. There were two aims: to give them a chance to have a family, and to provide single men with an opportunity to find a soul mate, even one diminished by blindness'', Avati explains how "A Heart Elsewhere" travelled from his mind's eye to film through the camera lens.
This journey may have taken decades, but Avati believes that at the very core man remains essentially the same, whatever may have been the changes around him: his sense of dressing, his food, the environment, the technological progress, political turmoil, economic downturn and so on. So, in that sense, "A Heart Elsewhere" is relevant today, as it will be tomorrow.
``Soon after my picture was released, I got hundreds of letters and e- mails from young men and women who said that they recognised Nello, and the character was believable''. Nello was made that way as a `stark contrast' to Angela, who despite having gone blind is a terrible person. ``I portrayed her that way very consciously...I did not want to imply that every blind person is goodness personified. I do not think that a physical handicap has any great powers to alter the state of one's mind,'' Avati is remarkably lucid and sure of what his work wants to convey.
Yet, despite Nello's suffering, Avati weaves into him an almost magnetic strength that helps him to remain what he has always been, loving, caring and gentle. At Cannes the average critic, diehard and cynical after years of watching the make-belief world, would not so easily agree to Avati's interpretation of human love. ``It cannot live in the face of rejection'', some argued.
The debate on this can be endless, but "A Heart Elsewhere", while being no masterpiece or even great cinema, had an element of positivism.
(This story appeared in The Hindu dated August 8 2003)