We’ll Sleep When We’re Old
Before the ashes, before the flames, it was a pleasant warm Roman evening like so many others that blossom in June, from the villa overlooking the windows of the homes around the beautiful Orange Garden, amid the flowering magnolias and the metallic Bentleys of the Aventine Hill. And this story contained an infinity of colors. As many as could be found in the Persian carpets laid out the length of the mansion’s front hall—the last villa as you climbed the steep street, with architectural spaces and arches in a florid art nouveau style—carpets woven with Sufi techniques in Kāshān and Tabrīz. All of it gone up in smoke now, along with the Flemish tapestries hanging at the foot of the spiral staircases, and the Shirvan hall runners in the corridors, and the contemporary art decorating every single room, bathrooms included. Everything, devoured by flames and reduced to ashes—so long. All of it crumbled to cinders, cold now and smeared together with the flame-retardant foams unleashed by the firefighters, transformed now into a monochromatic expanse of gray verging on white, not unlike
the most famous painting of the collection so recently destroyed, a Piero Manzoni Achrome, renowned for three surprising reasons. First: for being appraised at close to €2 million. Second: for representing the indecipherable epitome of its owner. Third: for stirring in all those who beheld it, along with admiration for the artwork and its owner, the unsettling possibility that at least one of the two, artwork or owner, might be sumptuously fake.
Everything that comes before the fire belongs to Oscar Martello, a millionaire producer of high-impact cinema and lowest-common-denominator television series—God-fearing out of vested interest—and the owner of Anvil Film Studios by personal vocation. Who, as he saunters onstage with his hands in his pockets, produces much the same effect as the Manzoni painting: an impression of solid wealth and a highly valued solitude. The kind of things that at first glance shoot out beams of hope to starving directors, screenwriters without ideas, unstable actors and actresses; and at second glance seduce into a hypnotic state; and with each successive glance annex and incorporate. But as they annex, they reduce the functions of the annexee to one and one alone: obedience. As well as a hairy gratitude that serves only to facilitate the digestion of the great Oscar Martello, digestion that is never devoid of a hint of disgust, a disgust that comes over him with every episode of gastric reflux, when for psychosomatic reasons his digestive juices, rather than remaining where they belong to grind up oysters and champagne, choose to come and pay a visit to his throat. Forcing him, reflexively, to emit a tiny, saliva-less spit. The mimesis of a spit, if Oscar only knew what “mimesis” meant.
The sequence of absorptions and expulsions has been speeding
up since Oscar Martello, climbing from success to success, from benediction to benediction, took ownership of a nice fat slice of the assets of La Dolce Roma, over which he skates, encountering no emotional interference save for the black surge of resentment for the family he was born into, so poverty-stricken that he still feels shame, rage, and the surge of intolerance that so many years ago drove him from Serravalle Scrivia out toward the world he yearned to sink his teeth into. The world of money, the world of the movies. The world of Helga and the cougar women on their expense accounts. The world of stories, where the soul of the narrative is never to be found in the plot twist, only in the characters. Where, by manipulating them, you can manipulate the audience that sits gazing up at them openmouthed—physicians, lady doctors, police detectives, homely but good-hearted schoolteachers, street thugs on the road to perdition, brave mothers, priests, fraudulent saints, bloodthirsty saints, and even popes, all of them deployed for the common good of the viewing audience, which turns out to match the private—and privately invoiced—interests of none other than Oscar Martello.
Oscar Martello is the first character of this story. He’s forty-six years old, married to a wife who’s as cutting as a shard of broken glass, but stunningly beautiful, Helga, a Buenos Aires–born Argentine, and he has two young daughters, Cleo and Zoe, one aged three, the other aged five, for whom he feels an automatic tenderness every time he lays eyes on them, and a yearning to take them in his arms and protect them from the jutting nails of this world. But then he promptly forgets about them, because he lacks the time, he lacks the patience, and he entrusts them to safely sterilized
nannies and expensive toys because he always has something else usually super urgent to do: drive nails into the world.
Oscar has the face of a bandit, a face worn haggard by sleeplessness. He lives on the run, he thinks on the run. Like all the filthy rich, he’s unhappy, especially at night, when the shadows come flying through the dark. And again at dawn, when he finds himself awake and alone.
By day, he’s a guy who travels in a straight line, even when there are curves in the road. He’s never read a book from cover to cover, but he knows men, he knows women, and he pays them both, though for different reasons. When he closes his eyes, he makes up stories. When he opens them again, he has them written down. With those stories, he makes money. With the money, he leads a sumptuous life, he buys houses and apartments in Rome and around the world, the latest a palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice. (“But don’t you think there’s a curse on the place? Get me a priest and have the fucking place blessed.”) He has a broker who buys him stocks (“I want ten thousand shares of Pfizer by end of business today, get busy!”) and he purchases canvases by contemporary artists, provided they’re very expensive and all the latest rage. He has three Jaguars parked in his basement garages, three Filipino houseboys, all of whom he calls “You there” (“I’m no racist, it’s just that I can’t tell them apart”), and nine carbon steel Masamoto knives for cutting fish. He considers himself the lord of seafood and stories. He has an endless sequence of private sins that he conceals behind a luxuriant public devotion, and which he offsets with lavish donations to the pagan coffers of the Vatican. Somewhere, beneath some mental false bottom in the suitcase of his brain, he truly believes that heaven exists. Some time ago he reserved himself a chunk of it with a panoramic view, as if it were
something to which his native aggressiveness entitled him, but in the meantime he haggles with the Lord Almighty over the price per square foot and skims every penny he can on the expenses.
He steals for himself and his dream on earth: to become the number one Italian movie producer and moreover—hear ye! hear ye!—to buy for himself the most spectacular and pretentious dream factory of them all, the hundred-acre production lot of Cinecittà, the facilities where Maciste, Totò, and Federico Fellini invented the world and where at least two dozen divas—from Isa Miranda to Sophia Loren—made it fall in love. Cinecittà, the factory of all stories, the twenty-two soundstages crumbling into decay little by little, including the broad boulevards that with their maritime pines once smacked of salt air, distance, and adventure, whereas now they smell of nothing but exhaust fumes and the traffic that clogs the vast commuter quarter of Tuscolano. Oscar Martello yearns to awaken Cinecittà, like Sleeping Beauty in the fairy tale, using millions of euros instead of a kiss, and then screw it royally, from above and from behind, fertilize it with great movies, great box office takes, make it throb once again with its own light, provided it reflect on his own.
Oscar Martello is an extrovert. And extroverts generally kick up tremendous clouds of dust so they can then hide in them.
Andrea Serrano is the second character of this story. He’s thirty-nine years old, he lives and walks by himself, except for brief and fleeting love affairs. His physique is still lithe and fit, his eyes are still quick. And yet he gives the impression of someone who thinks slowly, whose thoughts chase slowly after comets, especially when he sits there, with his elbow braced on the armrest and his
face propped between thumb and forefinger, his forefinger resting across his lips. He makes his living by writing screenplays of average intensity, meant for an average audience that he imagines along with the screenplays, as he sits there that way. Occasionally he is distracted by the sudden, painful revelation of how time is passing without ever leaving behind anything that resembles an explanation. Usually, this revelation makes him don the special Neutral Working Expression that keeps him at a safe distance from the battles of life, all of them too concrete or too risky. He calls that elegance, but deep down he has a vague suspicion that it’s really nothing but run-of-the-mill cowardice. He’s a shy man. And shy men, when they have their backs against the wall, can become dangerous.
Jacaranda Rizzi, the actress, is the point of departure. And actually, also, the point of arrival. She’s thirty-two years old, but you might guess she’s twenty-two because of the whiff of peach or a freshly plucked flower. She descends from a cloud, she lives on a cloud: her cloud contains hundreds of photographs, plus several memorable scenes from the movies she’s acted in. For instance, one in which she dives off a boat on the high seas, saying, “It’s time I go now.” Another one in which she sobs with her arms around a sick little boy. And one in which she undresses—though not entirely—and then lets herself fall back on the sofa, spreading her legs in front of the man who’s staring at her, and then says to him in a whisper, “Is this the way you want me?”
Because of her sweet little bipolar heart and the sheer quantity of pills she ingests, and her beauty, made up of honey-colored eyes, blond hair, and pink freckles, she contains a shadow of darkness
that she once tried to slice with razor blades. But that shadow still hovers beside her.
This time, Jacaranda is laying the groundwork for vengeance, certain that she will emerge victorious or at least unharmed, finally free from the evil ghosts that visit her in her sleep and from the sense of vertigo that attends her morning awakenings. But the ghosts and the senses of vertigo come from far away, they’re stubborn enemies, they’re hunters who run and never grow tired. She is the prey. And Oscar Martello is her escape route.
The how and the when are in the first scene.