Academia is not usually a place where one finds challenging ideas nowadays although for a long time, the contrary image has been indefatigably promoted by those engaged in what's going on behind the walls of those venerable institutions for more than merely academic reasons. But from time to time, there can be exceptions. That's what happened last night, not in an institution of higher learning, but in a film actually shot inside one of the lecture rooms of the University of Barcelona. This occurs in José Luis Guerin's film The Academy of the Muses, which this talented Spanish director produced, wrote, filmed, directed and edited.
It's a feature film about the fictive life of a real life ltalian literature professor teaching a course in Spanish at the Academy of the Muses of the Philology Department of the University of Barcelona in Spain, Raffaele ( Raffaele Pinto, a real life philology professor at the university) and some of his students, in particular 3 specially engaged female students: Forgetta (Emanuela Forgetta), an Italian brunette who agrees with Pinto's ideas about the role of women as active or passive muses for such classical poets as Dante etc, Mireia (Mireia Iniesta), a young wide-eyed Spanish girl interested in asserting gender rights for women in contemporary Europe, then having trouble with his boyfriend and is trying desperately to seek solace in poetry in affirming her identity as an individual person, with intrinsic worth as a woman and not merely an appendage in the sex-life life of her current boyfriend Carolina (Carolina Llacher), a rather plump struggling female Catalan artist trying to make it as a budding poetess with her own unique poetic voice in a style very different from those of the classical poets with very regular rhymes and meters on which her professor is an expert, both inside and outside of the lecture theatre and then behind all that impasssioned, rapid fire, charismatic talk by the professor and his spontaneous exchanges with his admiring students each with their own differing points of view, his relationship with his wife Rosa (Rosa Delor Muns), a fellow university lecture who is still deeply in love with Raffaele, a relationship which is threatening to become, with the ineluctable passage of time, little more than an apartment sharing co-cohabitation arrangement with just intellectual communication between them and who is beginning to suspect something more than purely pedagogical relationship in her husband's frequent excursions with these 3 female students to various places of ostensibly academic interest in Spain or Sardinia and inside the front seat of his car.
The film begins with Raffaele talking elegantly and persuasively about the role of female muses in classical poetry, drama, novels etc ranging from Dante's Beatrice in his La Vita Nouva, to Rousseau's Julie in his La Nouvelle Héloise, to Cervantes' Dulcinea in Don Quixote to Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 "Shall I Compare thee to a Summer's Day" etc. and the responses of some of his students in class and then cutting very quickly to his conversation with his wife Rosa at home and how she doesn't really buy his ideas and how he manages to put forwards some ostensibly respectable arguments in support of his own and in particular the genuine need of his pedagogical "methodology" of mixing literature with life, of obliterating the boundary between fiction and reality and how each reinforces and enriches his students' understanding of what the poets are trying to achieve with their muses as inspirational engines for artistic creation and how even in contemporary Europe, women may still serve as active Muses for the artistic creation of men. Then we are shown how he continues his discussions with each of the three female students in the front compartment of his car: how he tries to answer their queries about both literature and their personal lives: an excursion with Mireia to a ruin, an outing with Forgetta to Sardinia to learn of and record how 4 shepherds there each sing with a particular bass, alto or baritone notes to create some very uniquely harmonious native folk songs expressing their desires, their joys, their passion for the women they fancy and his discussion with Carolina about her latest poetic composition and how she complains that he is not really enthusiastic about her creative efforts.
When the film ends, we see Rosa talking with Mireia, face to face and her disagreement with her husband's pedagogical methods with his female students and in particular with Mireia but we see them talking behind what appears a glass screen, more or less like as if we were looking at them behind the windscreen of a car (which may itself be a symbol of our contemporary mode of transporting ourselves incessantly from one physical location to another and perhaps in time too,) and how Mireia tries to defend Raffaele and his methods. But it was obvious who won the arguments.
All through the film we got close up shots of the faces, the eyes, the mouths of the characters and we hear the very intense and rapid dialogues spouting from such talking heads but very little of their bodies, as if there exist little more than ideas and voices and no part of their bodies are involved, as if somehow, they are not quite real and that their bodies got nothing to do with what the literature professor is talking about: love, which he claims is something invented by poets, to justify the poet's and troubadours' literary creations: love songs and sonnets about impossible loves, so that the heroines in such poetic creations become real only when they become physically absent, when they have been turned into beautiful yet distant ideals, ideals which magically transform them from the untidy chaos, ambiguities, ambivalences of real flesh and blood human beings tortured by sexual desires, passions and longings into the beautiful graceful and elegant tidiness of merely rhyming and rhythmic words, lifting them onto a kind of spiritual plane, from the corporeality of the body to the incorporeality of merely orderly and esthetically arranged symbols on paper, ostensibly following and then twisting and exploiting to the limits the various rules of grammar, syntax and sense so as to create the maximum amount of meaning with the minimum number of words, from reality into the linguistic image of reality, an entirely created world of pleasing fantasy.
The use of images superimposed on to each other by montage and the images of the real life characters talking as if from behind a fuzzying glassy surface seems a potent support of the blurring of boundaries now de rigeur amongst all kinds of so-called post modern art and artists, film makers not excepted.
Raffaeles Pinto, the principal character, is excellent as the professor: his words are most clearly articulated and he speaks with obvious ostensible and persuasive conviction. I suppose that the fact that he actually is a real life professor of literature helps. So are the three students and Rosa Delor Muns, who play themselves in this movie There is a most remarkable verisimilitude and persuasive authenticity in the portrayal of three different kinds of female mentality, personalities, concerns and perspectives.
Because of the frequency and rapidity of the exchanges which involve some very abstract ideas, I don't think the film will fare well with mass audiences. Perhaps it may be a completely different story for those art school and literature students with a proclivity for thought provoking ideas.
Perhaps as the professor says, man really lives as a verbal spider within a web of words in which he is king, in a linguistic web woven by himself and can never hope to extricate himself therefrom, a web without which he cannot even emotionally survive, bound as it were by his own form of self-created and self-maintained linguistic, intellectual and emotional prisons. In that web of words and language, the rules and grammar of which are not invented by him but are inherited by him from his own linguistic community, they do allow him a certain degree of freedom in combining and recombining the words into certain individual structures which apart from the usual practical function of helping him negotiate his ways about in the day to day world with other fellow human beings in performing various chores needed for keeping himself alive, can also act additionally as a means of expressing his own unique personality, his own ideas and his own most intimate feelings in a kind of playful word game with which he can become so involved that sometimes, he could no longer tell whether he is still the masters of his words or that on the contrary, without quite realizing it, he has become their slave and thus he can no longer be quite sure whether he is living through his words or that the particular form of his verbal creations are living through him. .
I like the way Guerin portrays the woman on the screen most of the time in the foreground with the professor in the background, often as a murky and indistinct figure although verbally, his voice is always dominant. By photographing the various figures talking behind an almost but not quite transparent glass "veil", on whose surface one often finds the reflected image of clouds, trees, the sky etc., is José Luis Guerin trying to suggest that the arguments he is exploring on the screen somehow never really reach into the heart of the matter, that somehow nature has a way of intruding into that world of words and that in the final analysis, they are a form of subtle mask, a form of deception, a kind of illusion which we try desperately to convince others and perhaps even ourselves, are true and perhaps that to survive in this less than perfect world, we really need such masks, such deceptions, such illusions and such tricks of language and can never realistically hope to be able to live without them? What then is "love"? What then is the "language of love"? What then is the true relation between the so-called "reality" of "love" and the "language of love"? What then is the role of women in the "reality" of "love" and the "language of love"? Can we ever be "realist" about "love" or are we forced to be mere "phenomenologist" about "love" or the "language of love"? We are left pondering.