Some many years ago, in the late 1990’s, while living in Rome, on a Sunday morning I wandered my neighborhood, Trastevere, looking around in my habitual manner. Being a self-named “church junkie,” I entered Santa Cecilia, around 10 am. It was empty, except for me. I’d gone in to look at the art – the sculpture of S. Cecilia before the altar, the frescoes. While looking around a priest entered, and commenced to give Mass. To no one, since I am not a “believer” but a firm atheist. The man looked to be in his late 70’s or perhaps older. I’d seen this a few times before – priests giving services to empty churches, or wandering around tending to the upkeep – but this time it struck me as sadly poignant, and I tried to imagine for myself what it must be like to have gone through one’s life – giving one’s life – to a deeply held belief, and for that system to have evaporated before your own eyes. Being a filmmaker I instinctively sensed a story and clustered some images in my mind – the feet shuffling toward the altar, the hands clutching the rosary, lifting the chalice, and then from behind his head faced out toward the empty church as he intones the Mass. Somber.
For some time this little story tantalized me, wandering in my brain, concocting further images, reminding of others – Bergman’s Winter Light and Bresson’s The Trial of Jeanne D’Arc among them – and recurrently popping into mind. From such nebulous stimulae is the material from which I birth a film.
On visiting Rome, most recently this past December 2013, I continued to visit churches, and remain struck with the irony that there in the heart of Catholicism, these many and impressive edifices are often empty, places where I and a few others slip in to seek silence amid the frantic bustle of the city, or to gaze at the art within, or the infrequent believer sitting in prayer. The major ones bustle with tourists, whose obligation to visit St. Peters or S. Ignazio, or the Pantheon, is as fixed a ritual as taking a selfie in front of the place. (There are others, mostly of the 3rd world of South America and the Philippines, who are pious believers still, and who now heavily populate the younger priests and nuns one sees padding around the Eternal City, tending to the mostly empty real estate.)
I was drawn to Rome this time by an invitation from RomaTre, a newer university, to give a talk. Being of an age in which jet-lag is less kind to the body than when younger, and similarly when visits to places or friends just might be “the last,” I decided to extend my stay for some months. Thanks to the kindness of friends I could afford to do so – for me Europe is extravagantly costly, and without friends putting me up, just plainly out of reach. I stayed until March, visiting Rome, Bologna, Milano, Istanbul, London, Paris, Rotterdam, Brussels, Madrid and Lisbon before returned to the USA, where another journey awaited me. All told it was 6 months of travels in Europe and the USA. Ample time for me to take endless photographs and to philosophize in the cavern of my mind.
July, 2016. Since writing the above some years have flown by, and again I am in Italy. Percolating in mind remains that Sunday morning in Trastevere, the visit to Santa Cecilia, and the apparition of the old priest facing the empty church. I think to write a parable, indirect and oblique, though I don’t yet have a handle on it. Since those 3 years ago I’ve gone on several American “tours” to show my work. A journey from Butte, Montana, to Salt Lake, Phoenix, Santa Fe, Lincoln, Chicago and finally New York, 10 cities and 12 screenings – which begot a cumulative audience of less than 100 souls. Figuratively no one.
While I hardly take cinema – this transient art spoken in the most transient of means, a flicker of here-now-gone light – with the gravity which I imagine that old priest took his service to his god, (and in truth I think cinema, and perhaps the “life” which it reflects and refracts, is meaningless), still that morning hangs in the recesses of my mind. In however petty and marginal of ways, I realize that in some sense, I am that priest, after now 54 years of making films, looking out over a now emptied cinema.