The quotation in the title is from Gerard Manley Hopkins.
A veritable whirlwind of bad news has continued to rage since the previous post on this blog, and I stand by the words and the tone of that piece.
Which brings me to Inspector Montalbano.
There is a great line in a John Cassavetes film (Love Streams). One of the characters is dismayed at her sister’s search for happiness: “Happiness! Looking for happiness and expecting to find it sucks! Forget happiness…that way madness lies…what works in this life is to look for comfort. Comfort is where it’s at. Finding as much comfort as you can, as often as you can, is the secret of the universe!”
And lately I have been comforting myself by escaping into the world of a box-set of Inspector Montalbano. I have enjoyed over 10 years now without a tv set, so dvds are my visual aid of choice. If you have not watched any Montalbanos I recommend you give them a try (the proper Montalbanos rather than the prequel Young Montalbano series).
What a generous, warm, life-affirming world opens up when the camera pans across the sun-smooched small towns of Sicily, and the violins and cellos of Franco Piersanti’s fine theme music give wings to the aerial photography.
Montalbano has some of the familiar, yawnsome traits of other cops-and-murderers films: Salvo Montalbano himself is a maverick flic who goes his own way whilst showing contempt for his bureaucratic bosses; and bad things happen…murders take place and tears are shed.
However, the whole ‘feel’ of the drama is entirely different to the genre equivalents in American, British and Scandinavian culture. There is a lightness of touch, a delight in landscape and townscape, and a rich sensuality that break through all the codes of cynicism, extreme violence and darkness that have increasingly come to characterise the genre.
Many writers and directors seem to be on a mission to make us like truly vile characters (e.g. The Sopranos). Heroes, heroines, anti-heroes and anti-heroines, they are all profoundly damaged and damaging. The crime genre has become an arena in which our society enacts its nastiest fears and its most nihilistic fantasies.
The Montalbano films are based on the novels of Andrea Camilleri. They are competently plotted, with well-worked stories and satisfying detective work. But they boast many unique features beyond those workaday criteria.
Firstly, the landscapes are full of rampant, effortless beauty (the quality of light is in itself a therapeutic treat…in contrast to the Scandi-noir phenomenon). Secondly, the towns and villages are fascinating labyrinths, baked in history. Thirdly, we get to see the interior of many of these buildings, interiors which are cool (in every sense of the word), casually filled with interesting arts and crafts, and resonant with fluent, natural style.
I’m trying to avoid stereotyping but there is no getting away from the sheer Mediterranean / Italian stamp of easy, cultured vitality. These qualities seem to run through every strata of society and every age group. The only difference with the older people in the films is that they have the most amazingly lined and expressive faces. In fact the casting in general looks as if it has been done by a reborn Pasolini.
There is an innocence and simplicity that pre-dates our tortured concerns about gender, race, and all the other sites of anxiety we revel in. The values promoted are liberal and inclusive, but without losing connection with the sensuous joys of living. Food, cooked with love and flair, is a major theme, and so is sexual attraction.
Men and women are presented as fallible, but there are not many evil people in the Montalbano world. The governing principles are tolerance, humour and robust common sense. The main characters all have faults and mini-obsessions that are used to gentle comic effect. The police station has a resident buffoon, a classic European clown, called Catarella. However, Catarella also belies this by being an expert on computer technology and occasionally providing unlikely assistance in solving a case.
Of course, since it is set in Sicily the presence of the Mafia cannot be ignored. However, most of the crimes are nothing to do with the Cosa Nostra, which is refreshing in itself. Instead the Mafia are seen as an international corporation with the ancient heads of clans living out their days in sumptuous rural mansions.
It is the big fish who are punished, whilst the little fish are shown mercy. This, of course, is the essence of escapism since real life is not like that at all. In Montalbano desperate refugees and immigrants are valued and cared for, whilst the traffickers and profiteers are pursued.
In a strange way this is an example of comfort-seeking escapism that is quite radical. I love and revere art that is challenging and very dark. But in today’s moral and political climate, there is something satisfyingly different and revisionist in a creation that radiates good faith and anti-cynicism.
And it’s also plain old-fashioned fun and visually gorgeous.