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The Film Director

(Eugenio Montale — Il Regista)

Haloed, almost melted into the early morning mist, the man who looked like Amerigo was looking at me as he stood on the pavement. I hesitantly offered then withdrew a sign of greeting, which didn’t escape him. ‘So you recognise me?’ he said. ‘Yes, it really is me, Amerigo.’ (‘Damn it,’ I said to myself, ‘how come I thought he was dead? Wrong information, one of those bits of idle news which spread without being checked… Thank God he knows nothing about it.’)

‘How are you?’ Amerigo went on. ‘I’ve been looking for you too, as well as the others. I’m here for a few days, passing through. I shouldn’t tell you this — my duties are secret — but I don’t forget the favour you did me in the June of that year, at Vallarsa, when you sent me on leave on the eve of the offensive. I know, you didn’t want to save my skin particularly, indeed you didn’t like me, but precisely in reaction to that unwarranted dislike you wanted to be a hundred per cent just. And so I owe my life to you, my first meeting with Y., which was fortunate for me and happened precisely during those few days of leave; and all the rest. Don’t thank me, and listen carefully (and above all don’t talk to anyone about this, otherwise I’ll let you go your own way and no one will speak of you any more). We’re making the film of the next fifty centuries, which those involved will take it in turns to see, indeed to live through, for the short section which concerns them. You, as a living man, belonged in the earlier film; no, not a bad film, I don’t say that, but definitely showing its age a bit, a little démodé… Too many close-ups, too many tracking shots, too many leading men. From now on the narrative will be much more rapid, much more fluent. And the music you’ll hear! Loud as a cannon and delicate as a thrush’s whistle. And it’s quite clear: up there they’re bringing things up to date, keeping track of events. Basically, we have a range of options which you don’t have.’

‘All right,’ I stammered, moving across to a wall where posters advertising ‘Road safety day’ were displayed. ‘All right, I get that completely, up above… and yes, naturally, a range of options… a very wide range…’ (The poster I was leaning against bore the words ‘Life is short; don’t make it any shorter’.)

‘Now,’ he continued, ‘there’s no question of offering you a new role; yours is about to end, and it hasn’t even been especially glorious. Not through your own fault, I know. In your period leading men were the fashion, and you weren’t born for that. You would have looked better in the new film, but, as I say, there’s nothing to be done about it. You were born too soon. But don’t get upset. I can smuggle you into the new film, get you a listing amongst the new actors. You write, or at least you used to write, as I remember. Don’t have too many illusions; a job like Homer’s is forbidden you, from the briefing notes we’re collecting, and which are unremarkable. And I hardly think that immortality in the style of Callimachus (mind you, it’s only for fifty centuries), with two hundred readers each century — but what readers! — can be awarded you. I hesitate to promise that any longevity will be ascribed to your writings. Perhaps you deserve it; I don’t totally exclude that. But what do you expect? The briefing notes are what they are; we have no illusions about the imbecility of the person who wrote them, but we can’t discard them completely. The new film reassembles and rehashes elements of the earlier film; we can’t wipe the slate clean completely. We’ll get to that point one day, but for now we must be patient. I myself will soon be replaced by new directors, much less talented than I. So, what would you say if I were to offer you a supporting part? In the new film, no one will read you, but you will be remembered as a figure with a previous existence, as someone who has lived in former times. Do you want to become a character in an opera libretto, a minor character of course, something like Angelotti in Tosca? I believe he really existed. Or would you prefer to link your name to a beefsteak, like Signore Chateaubriand? It could be arranged — if you prefer — that a tiepin, or a tie, or a hair-do could bear your name; or a new sub-species of dog, if you like. I know you used to like certain mongrels; it might be possible to stabilise one variety and affix your label to it. But we need to do this quickly. I’m very busy, and if I hadn’t met you I don’t know whether you would have figured in my treatment. Can you give me an idea, an indication?’

I staggered; I took a few steps in the mist; Amerigo held me up. A green light behind me turned a fiery red; a line of cars swooped up on me and at a whistle suddenly stopped. A policeman dressed in a black trench coat approached me at the double. ‘You’re in violation,’ he shouted. ‘Get a move on; follow me across the pedestrian crossing.’

‘And him… is he in violation too?’ I said, looking at Amerigo, who had skipped onto the pedestrian crossing with us.

‘Him? Who are you talking about?’ said the officer, pulling out a notebook to record my offence. ‘Are you drunk?’

He evidently saw nothing in the mist, whereas I saw the face which had smiled at me at Vallarsa more than thirty years before.