Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Days and Clouds -- appearance or reality?

Director: Silvio Soldini, 2007.

In this period of economic uncertainty, with bank crises drowning all other news, many jobs are disappearing. So, if your job was cut and you were forced out of work, how would your life change? What would you tell your spouse?

In the Italian Days and Clouds, Soldini's protagonist Michele (Antonio Albanese) loses his job in the company he co-founded. But he does not tell his wife, Elsa (Margherita Buy). She is preparing to defend her thesis for a university degree in art history, and he does not want to distract her. So, he goes about life as if he had a job, leaving for work every day and not curtailing his spending habits.

Only, after she has her degree and has enjoyed the surprise party he throws her in their fine apartment, does he tell her. Even after this shock has subsided, he continues to keep up the pretence of their lives. When they go out to dinner with friends, he picks up the tab. He does not even tell their 20 year-old daughter Alice (Alba Rohrwacher) the truth.

Days and Clouds is a study of middle-age relationships. Where they seem to have a rock-solid marriage, there are cracks. Michele's job-loss forces them both to face themselves and their perceptions of life. Michele wants to appear to be successful, a manager who can afford his affluent life, supporting his wife at home and his elderly father in a nursing home. Elsa, on the other hand, wants to continue her volunteer work restoring a fresca in an old building's ceiling. But it is Elsa who sees the need to face up to the reality of the situation.

As Michele looks for a job it is clear that there are few around, and his chances of landing one matching his experience and expectations are low to zero. With this revelation, he sinks into depression and apathy, while Elsa rises above her hobbies to land first a part-time job, then a second job. But like Michele, she is too proud to call out for help from friends.

Soldini pulls fine performances out of his two leads. Margherita Buy reminds us of Diane Lane. Her character is attractive, but not beautiful. But her husband, caught up in his secret problems, does not see her. He sees only his crisis.

As the crisis moves forward, Michele and Elsa find themselves growing further and further apart. Instead of love and kindness, their relationship becomes curt and brittle, ready to fracture and splinter into a thousand shards, like the one that cuts Elsa's foot early in the film. The "strong marriage" we see at the start has crumbled to breaking point.

Yet, Michele has been humbled. He has been forced to accept the hospitality of his daughter's boyfriend. Rikki, whom he disliked earlier, is now the one who helps him in his time of need. Whereas Michele had judged him, mostly by appearances, in his hour of need he sees Rikki at a deeper level. And he sees Alice at a deeper level, too. It is almost as if he is emerging from a coma. He sees her beauty and he sees her for who she really is. No more is she the one-dimensional rebellious daughter, with whom he constantly fights. Now she is a real person, multi-dimensional, one who helps and needs help.

As Days and Clouds reaches its climax, Michele has faced some of his inner demons. He has emerged stronger in some areas and weaker in others, just like we might. Soldini presents a realistic picture of hope. Despite the uncertainty of what lies ahead, Michele and Elsa come to see what is real and true. No longer worried about appearance, but now seeing the truth, they realize that they do love each other. Their most prized possession is not their apartment, nor their boat, nor their art-work; it is their relationship. This is what counts. This is what cannot be taken from them. It is their love that binds them together.

The fresca is itself a metaphor for their marriage. After 20 years there were too many secrets. The relationship was covered in a veneer of whitewash. But as they worked at cleaning away the surface coat of paint, opening up to one another, glimpses of color appeared. Only through painstaking detailed work, taking commitment and time, did the beauty of the original artwork appear, like magic. When it was finally completed, an ancient masterpiece was uncovered to be enjoyed once again. Michele's and Elsa's marriage needed that work and determined commitment to once more be recovered, showing the love that was still there, but hidden and almost lost forever.

Ultimately, Days and Clouds is a slow, realistic portrayal of middle-age marriage and mid-life crisis. What could happen to anyone, is exaggerated in the passion-laden sphere of Italy. But it reminds us that appearances are superficial and illusary. What counts is what is real. We can pretend all we want, but that does not solve problems, it merely pushes them out, delaying the inevitable. When problems arise, when tests or trials come, as they will (Jas 1:2), we must be ready to face them. They will not be pretty. They may not be easy. But they have a tendency to strip away the facade. They show us who we are and who our friends are.

In Days and Clouds, both Michele and Elsa were ashamed to tell the truth to their friends, afraid of what they might think. But true friends will be there to help us in our time of need, to show us their love clothed in shoe-leather (Prov. 17:17). We can let trials separate us from our loved-ones and friends, or we can let them refine us, like gold in the furnace, drawing us closer together. We can settle for appearance or we can rest in reality? Which will it be?

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

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