Excerpt of The Lion Dreaming
I invented Rome. The new Rome. The Rome where life is sweet, the place people imagine when they hear the name—that was my idea. It was just an idea, that’s all. The city was in decline. Roma had survived the war, but years later she was still groaning under the consequences. And because I loved her, I felt her pain. Her people had almost no work and little to eat. The Roman glint had faded from their eyes. Their faces were still marked by the treachery and death they had been forced to witness. Too much sorrow lingered in the shade of the pines. It radiated from the walls with the heat of the sun and permeated everything.
Young and high-spirited, I had left Romagna behind me and entered the Eternal City like a lion tamer stepping into a cage. I settled in the Via Voltana with the idea of goading all the big-city girls and men with my provincial wit, then subduing them with my passion. But war broke out and life disappeared from the streets, withdrawing into courtyards and stairwells. People suffered inside their lairs and, when they finally dared to emerge, they had been through too much, there was no play left in them. The lions sagged and licked their mangy hides, looking around pityingly, like old toms that are beyond goading. Most of them had nothing better to do than hang around the Isola Tiberina, hoping that someone might come by with something that was broken, so they could fix it for a bowl of tripe and half a bottle of cask wine. Their existence exuded such wretchedness that at night, crossing the Piazza Sonnino on your way home, the cobblestones of Trastevere felt tacky underfoot. As the years passed, I found it more and more difficult to scrape off the dejection that clung to my spirit at the end of the day.
Finally a morning came when I saw her lying in the street before me, Roma, the city herself, stretched out in her own filth, trying to pick herself up among the scraps piled in the gutter after the Porta Portese market. I came closer and saw that her breasts had shriveled. Flies swarmed around the scars the war had left on her body. The sight was too much to bear, so I helped her up. I ran a bath for her and blew the dust out of her hair and off her emaciated shoulders. I went to the Corso to buy new shoes and expensive French lipstick. Then I put her in a tight dress and sat her on a gleaming Vespa and told her that the life she led was la dolce vita. She believed me. It was only a dream, but she started to live it. The first smile reappeared on the face of the city I loved. Her self-confidence came back. I gave her that. By lying to her.
I told her to keep within limits. When you’ve lost something as minute as your happiness, you mustn’t try to search for it everywhere at once. I told her that her life no longer extended to the piles of rubble along the Via Cassia and that she should stop worrying about the suffering in the tenements of Tiburtina. I showed her the Via Veneto and said that there, together, we would find what she was looking for. It was a short stretch of road, just a few hundred meters where the buildings had come through with their grandeur intact. I copied it in my studio so that she could walk up and down in high heels, unhindered by reality. I hired a band to play the bossa nova to the rhythm of her hips. I painted the facades of the bars and hotels high-gloss and used a soft-focus lens that made the neons shine like halos. Finally, I aimed a spotlight at her, at Roma. In that beam of light she shone with all the glamour of a metropolis and I urged her to remain at all times within that narrow circle.
It was my fantasy, but the city was craving something to believe in. And because she herself was prepared to believe, the rest of the world believed her. People came all the way from America to see her with their own eyes and experience something of her new life. That’s what put her back on the map. Me, setting her limits. The Rome of boisterous paparazzi, outdoor cafes with cocktails, my friend Marcello and cool, marble fountains. That is the Rome I invented. Because I loved her.
Lies to women must always be motivated by love.
The studio is empty now. Except for my bed. It’s the old divan from my office, the one I would sometimes rest on between takes these last few years. They carried it downstairs and put it in the middle of the studio for me. It makes a comfortable bed, but I’m lost in this gigantic space. Around me on the floor are the chalk marks from the set of my last production, but there’s not a prop in sight. There are no cables or well-thumbed screenplays lying around, not even a feather or a sequin from a costume. Even the olive stones and the pieces of salami skin you used to find lying around everywhere after lunch have been swept up. High above me is the iron grid for the lights. It is bare. Someone has packed away the long black curtains that muffled the chatter of the extras and made it possible for me to talk to the crew without a megaphone.
The sliding steel doors that take up a whole wall and can be opened in a trice to reveal the back lot have been bolted shut. Even the birds that nested on the beams below the roof seem to have flown.
At sixteen I earned my first pay drawing cartoons and caricatures. I sent them off to magazines in Rome, where they caught the eye of a publisher of science fiction comics. For a long time he would only let me write dialogue in balloons. It was asinine work. To keep from going crazy, I thought up my own stories: the adventures of Zarco, Commander of the Planet Gomba. As more and more people trying to support their families moved away from our area, the manpower in the office fell to a critical level, and I was allowed to develop a few of those ideas. In the end I drew a number of episodes for our regional daily, Il Resto del Carlino.
The first thing I did after fixing a piece of blank paper in place was draw up the lines. Even before I knew what I was going to draw, often before I had a clear story in mind, I would use a ruler to draw the boxes in which the scenes would take place, just as later I often began by determining the framing and filled the shot with extras afterwards. Generally, one of those cartoon pages followed a fixed formula, with the first and last pictures the biggest: the first was the introduction, the last one was for the punch line and the tie-in to the next day’s episode. Sometimes, however, I would take the risk of using a whole page for a single picture so that I would have enough space to do something bigger: a crowd scene or a panorama. What’s important, then, is that you mustn’t try to fill the whole box at once. Instead you start with a couple of lines and a small inconspicuous figure somewhere in the foreground.
I’m lying here on my divan like that now, as a cautious idea on a blank page. This little bed of mine in the bottom left, the emptiness around it contained by the walls of Studio 5, the floor beneath me and the grid above, from which the spotlights will soon be hung. Together they form the frame, a lofty hall, which I have to fill completely with my dreams. Above the door to the corridor there is a glass plate with a red light behind it. It just flicked on: SILENCE, FILMING!
When I was a boy in Rimini, many of the most thrilling moments I spent in the Fulgor, our local cinema, were during the last couple of minutes before the film started. Everyone was seated and waiting. They were still talking out loud. The children whooped. My mother smiled and made rustling noises while opening our bags of sweets. The whole cinema was filled with delicious expectation. We were about to see Garbo, Ronald Colman, or the Marx Brothers. For a few days now I’ve felt that same way. Except this time the tension is greater, it’s grown-up, like the tension I felt when I was making my own films and walked into Studio 5 on the first day of shooting. There’s more depending on it.
It most resembles the embrace of a lover. You can scarcely move and yet you want to be held even more tightly. The less you are able to move, the more intense your feelings. You even have trouble breathing, but still you feel secure. When her grip relaxes for a second, you feel like you’re going to lose it all, and you hug her closer until she wraps her legs around you and crushes your sides with her thighs. Everything you have to say condenses into sighs. No one understands them, but still you’ve said it all. Now and then my harsh mistress squeezes her arms tight, almost killing me. She makes me aware of the limits of my body. “Don’t let go,” I cry. “Don’t let go!” Then she kisses me and smiles, and tightens the belt of her love.
“Quiet now,” she whispers, “the film is about to start.”