This is a Movie About Falling
by John Parras
The Filipina Maid
This scene serves as a kind of prequel to the entire film. It’s not directly plot related, but it sets the mood and tone of what’s to follow. Sig. Ferdinand told me privately that it’s the most crucial scene in the whole movie. He called it the film’s raison d’etre.
It’s early afternoon and I am cleaning the signora’s apartment. The interior is beautiful—roomy and elegant—with large windows that overlook Rome. But it’s a hot afternoon in early September and the shades are half-way down now, those Persian blinds everyone has in Italy, and I have turned on the television, at a very low volume, to keep me company while I dust.
You can’t see the television screen. It faces me, with the camera behind it. The cameramen spent a very long time getting that all just right: the feeling of the shades down to keep out the stunningly hot and bright Roman afternoon; the living room in cool shadow; a television set sending soft shades of light on one side of the room. Throughout all of this I hum softly to myself.
Then I change the channel and see something that catches my attention. I freeze, then my expression goes through a series of slow changes—curiosity, misunderstanding, understanding, disbelief—all in a long, unbroken close-up shot. Then horror. It was the hardest thirty seconds of acting I’ve done in all my career.
The viewer still can’t see the TV screen. I pick up the remote and turn up the volume and the newscaster’s voice, which just barely registered on your consciousness before, now becomes audible: you can hear the surprise and the fear in it, and you feel it yourself when you realize what it is I am seeing. It is September 11, 2001: the attack on the World Trade Center.
Now comes the most disturbing part of the scene for me—even more emotionally wrought than the close-ups earlier. I stand in front of the television, dust rag in hand, transfixed by the spectacle. I make a move as if I am going to leave the room or call for the signora, then change my mind. My hand comes to my face. There are no cuts, you understand, just the camera pulling in close then pulling back again.
Then you hear the pitch of the announcer’s voice rise and see my eyes widen: it is the moment when the first tower collapses. My entire body reacts: winces, shrinks, twists, but I am powerless to turn away. And everything that happens on the TV screen, all the awesome tragedy of the attack at the moment the tower collapses, is reflected in the pitch of the newscaster’s voice—which is real, by the way—and in me, in the reaction of my body, which reflects the utter shock and sorrow of America, the devastation of a world.
I cry. Fall to the couch and cry. Signora G. appears in the corner of the room, her eyes wide. She drops a handkerchief to the floor. Cut.
It is a brilliant scene, I tell you, brilliantly conceived by the man I consider the finest director alive. I am honored to work with him.
Movies are primarily about light, about angles and intensities of light, about shadows and contrast. With light I can create good and evil, suspicion, guilt, hope—the entire spectrum of human emotion. Even some we don’t have names for yet.
I try to use natural light whenever possible. Film is ravenous for photons and more photons. (The more light-sensitive film, of course, tends to be too grainy for the big screen.) More often than not, I take my cues from the natural light around me and try to amplify its effects. But look out a window one day and observe how many different shades of radiance exist in the real world. Every surface reacts to light: some reflect the beams and some absorb them. When I set up a shot I keep the hard, shiny surfaces off-screen, reflecting light onto the actors; more porous surfaces like brick and fabric I frame in the shot, and I want these objects to glow softly with light like spiritual beings. For instance, in the falling birds scene, the walls of the buildings are flush with a soft light like a gessoed canvas; the doves fall across the canvas, first in actual time, then in slow motion, like dream images, which usually pass precipitously in the night with the speed of angels, slowed down to human time.
Italy, and indeed the entire Mediterranean, is heaven for filmmakers. The play of light in the sky is splendid, glorious. The clouds grouping like mountains above the mountains, riding the wind and ever changing, regrouping, mounting upon themselves. Sometimes rain in the distance, grey sheets of shadow, a quick flash of lightning. In fact my favorite days for filming, in color, are overcast, grey, with rain close by. That kind of situation really brings out the color in your main subjects, their clothing, the play of emotion on their flushed faces. It’s ideal.
I’m lucky, too, to have a gaffer who knows his light and his electricity. Fausto is indispensable.
I do things like run wires for the lights and cameras. A film requires as much electricity as a small mall, and I’ve got to coordinate it all and make sure we don’t blow too many fuses along the way. I’m purely behind-the-scenes. Microphones, computers, communication equipment—I run miles of cables, try to prevent people from tripping on the stuff. I’m pretty good with lights, but that’s not my specialty. I’m the handyman behind the art.
In addition to electricity I do carpentry, masonry, some special effects like small explosions or fog, metal work and plumbing when it’s really necessary. This film was pretty easy—we didn’t have to build Troy or anything like that. One of the starlets asked me to change her tire—she got a flat coming into the studio—but she picked the wrong guy to flirt with, if you know what I mean. I sent her to the Best Boy.
The Best Boy
People tell me what to do and I do it. I’m a slave in that way, but I don’t mind. I like to feel needed and to be helpful. My mom brought me up that way. I do everything—tape down wires, carry camera equipment, make salon appointments for the director, take notes, make copies, buy donuts, sew buttons, make coffee, coordinate deliveries, assist with payroll, buy last-minute props, show people around, spit-polish Valentina’s shoes, you name it. I even changed a tire as a favor for one of the starlets.
The only thing I won’t do is handle weapons. They’re dangerous. Even the ones that shoot blanks. They shoot out a hot puff of air that can burn your skin. I won’t go near them and would never work on an action film. This movie, though it has some violence, is really a piece of art, and I’m glad to be a part of it. Ferdinand is a master and I’m learning a lot from him. It’s my ambition to direct movies myself one day.
I’m not sure about being called Best Boy; boy sounds denigrating—I’m 33 years old and weigh 172 pounds—but I put up with it. Best I like, though. Best I can live with.
The Weapons Coordinator
There is only one gun in the film: a .38 revolver. It is a small black pistol that Luca carries around with him as he stalks the banker guy around town. The same weapon was used in recent shootings by the real Red Brigade in Bologna, but in the movie it is more like a bulge in the character’s pants than anything else. It is a symbol—of his rebelliousness, his virility. He is actually scared of the gun.
We shot it only once. Fed up with being a terrorist, Luca goes to a field outside of town, somewhere deep in the woods, at a small clearing on the banks of a river. He pulls the gun out of his waistband, fires nine times into the air (there are only six bullets but the character keeps pulling the trigger anyway), then chucks the gun into the water.
And wouldn’t you know it, Matteo Niccolo really did throw the gun into the water. I was so mad! That .38 was from my own personal collection; Jake (the prop master) had a dummy gun to toss in the river, which isn’t really a river at all but a stream that barely trickles, and only an idiot would try to get rid of weapon in such a place.
My gun is useless now.
The Animal Trainer
My main assistant Franco and some other crew members are throwing the birds off the rooftop, first one, then two or three, then a dozen and more. Doves and pigeons, most of them white or egg-brown. Their wings are clipped, tied up so the birds can’t fly. The camera is in the street below, and it catches the birds as they’re coming down out of the sunlight and falling at the feet of the protagonist. It’s one instance of the movie’s falling motif—everything falls in this film: vases, people, cars, handkerchiefs, rocks, toys, keys, guns, rain, even clouds. It’s a nice touch Ferdinand has worked in to reinforce the theme of the Fall—of the protagonist (whose nickname in the movie is Adam), of the World Trade Center, of the hegemony of the Occident.
In this bird scene I mentioned, the protagonist, who is a Red Brigade terrorist, has been following around his target, the man he is supposed to maim by orders of the secretariat. The man is some kind of economic advisor to the Italian division of the World Bank whom the secretariat has chosen as representative of the evils of capitalism.
Anyway, we fashioned a big net in the street beneath the rooftop, the kind trapeze artists use, to catch the birds. Only, some of the birds don’t fall into the net. Even though their wings are clipped, some of them manage a kind of half-flight and veer off target, missing the net. These are killed instantly upon impact. The back-up camera catches these birds as they hit the pavement, and when I see the takes in slow motion my stomach goes queasy and I vomit all over the cinematographer’s shoes. He wears expensive suede Findi’s, and he is not pleased.
It was my job to make sure the birds were safe, and I failed. They are God’s creatures, innocent in a way men can never be. I’ll never forgive myself.
I protested the use of the takes in the final cut. I didn’t think it was right, and argued that the animal rights people would be all over us, but Ferdinand used the shots anyway. He said, “Stefano, I regret the death of God’s creatures, but God also allowed the birds to die. I didn’t plan it this way, as you know. I gave you full power to arrange the action in whatever manner you found fit, and though you took every possible precaution, unfortunately, some of the birds missed the net.
“We caught that on film and I’m going to use it. Often the best shots are accidental, and that is the case here. I mourn the birds, who as you say are God’s creatures, but I mourn more strongly the human beings who fell from the towers, who threw themselves in desperation from the upper floors, choosing one death over another death. Falling, death, loss. This is what my film is about. The takes will not be cut.”
So that was that. My failure will be the scene’s success. Life’s like that.
The Sound Technician
I spend afternoons with my microphone recording sounds on the almost empty street. Movies without sound are corpses.
The Girlfriend, Chiara (Valeria Godera)
This is the scene where I see Luca, my ex-boyfriend (played by Matteo Niccolo), for the first time in two years.
This is what the movie is about for me: seeing the world again after 9/11, how everything looks different since that day, how it is impossible even to examine the button on your shirt in the same manner as you did before the attack. The most obvious example is airplanes. How common it is to raise your head and see one flying somewhere in the sky! (Especially in Milano, where I live much of the year—and in the New York area they are ubiquitous.) But now: what do you think of when you see an airplane?
It’s this subtle but fundamental shift in the psyche that I’m trying to get across in the scene. Luca disappeared from my life in 2000; now it’s 2002 and he suddenly appears at the front gate of my house.
She’s wearing sexy Jordache jeans. Very 90s. But in the latter scene his shirt is untucked and a little wrinkled.
Luca, The Italian Terrorist
I try not to think too much about the acting. I just put myself in the character’s shoes, eat his cheeses, as we say. He’s bored and alienated. Being a member of the Red Brigade is like that: boring. Not in the way that you get bored when you have nothing to do—it’s the laborer’s boredom, a boredom born of repetition of the same actions over and over again. Or at least that’s the phase the character finds himself in; it may have been exciting to join up, go underground, feel the thrill of wielding a pistol, the excitement of following around strangers. But that time is over for Luca. He’s been tailing this banker fellow for months now, and the edge has worn off. He’s tired of being clandestine, misses his former life. He’s questioning his ideals and the necessity and even the morality of what he’s doing—planning a murder or a maiming in the name of the Left.
It’s a tough role because much goes unsaid. His whole disillusionment after the attacks in New York and upon learning of the al-Qaeda threats on Rome, most of that goes unsaid, so I am compelled as an actor to convey it through my body and my expressions. I think I must have lost five kilos in the effort. My face is getting haggard. I’ll be glad when I can shirk off this character and get back to my real self, to Matteo Niccolo, who, lately, I am on the verge of losing altogether.
Sig. Ferdinand, The Director
Falling, falling: this is a movie about falling. As Mallarmé wrote, all is summed in that one word.
Thank you for your time. Please feel free to call my assistant should you have any further questions. I now take my leave. Buona sera.
A National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow in Prose Fiction, John Parras is the author of Fire on Mount Maggiore (University of Tennessee Press, 2005), which won the Peter Taylor Prize for the novel. His creative work has appeared in Conjunctions, Salmagundi, Painted Bride Quarterly, Xconnect, Oasis and other literary journals, and his chapbook, Dangerous Limbs: Prose Poems and Flash Fictions (2013) is published by Kattywompus Press.