Culture

Famous novelists should not go home

Mantovani (Oscar Martinez) catches up with his former gal Irene (Andrea Frigerio) in a scene from “The Distinguished Citizen.” Photo courtesy of Metropolis Cinema-Sofil

BEIRUT: “Write what you know.” Metric tons of aspiring fiction writers have internalized that adage. It’s informed decades of creative writing classes and is responsible for untold numbers of bruised egos and fractured friendships wounds resulting from people finding they’ve inspired “characters” in the “fiction” of their writer “friends.”

Writers’ fondness for cannibalizing loved ones to make fiction (rarely money) is the premise of “El Ciudadano Ilustre” (“The Distinguished Citizen”), co-directed by Gaston Duprat and Mariano Cohn from a script by Andres Duprat.

The story’s distinguished citizen is Daniel Mantovani (Oscar Martinez), a novelist from small-town Argentina. He found fame in self-imposed European exile, writing fictions about small-town Argentina.

As the film opens, he’s waiting to be escorted into a Swedish auditorium where he’s handed the Nobel literature prize. Fame has not refined Mantovani’s modesty. While thanking the Swedish royal family for the honor, he devotes his acceptance speech to lamenting how, as he nears the end of his career, he’s received a prize confirming that his writing reflects the tastes of self-satisfied bourgeois mediocrity.

All hands seem stunned at Mantovani’s arrogance but they give him a standing ovation anyway. He smiles a self-satisfied smile.

The crown weighs heavy, however. Five years after winning the Nobel, the now-bearded Mantovani is seen standing in a Barcelona park, staring at the corpse of a pink flamingo splayed inelegantly on the surface of a lagoon.

The accompanying voice-over is commanded by his assistant Nuria (Nora Navas), as she rhymes off the latest bouquet of invitations to blue-chip international events. In counterpoint to this litany of post-Nobel honors, Mantovani’s voice recites variations on a theme of “No.”

The only invitation that grabs his attention is one to return to Salas, his home town. Its mayor wants Mantovani to join in the town’s anniversary celebration and participate in a series of cultural events, culminating in his being awarded Salas’ Distinguished Citizen medal.

The reasons this call intrigues him so much are locked inside the writer’s head but he has Nuria clear his schedule for that week, and tells her to book him a return ticket for one wanting to do this alone.

So begins Mantovani’s mid-life adventure in Salas, one that confirms another old adage You can’t go home.

“The Distinguished Citizen” premiered in 2016 at Venice’s main competition, where Martinez walked away with best actor honors for his straight-faced comic portrayal of Manotvani.

After Venice the movie took a bushel of international festival prizes. The film will have its Lebanon debut Saturday at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil, where it’s being projected as part of this year’s Ibero-American film festival.

“The Distinguished Citizen” is among a spate of recent movies interested in the clash between urban and rural especially between the pretentions of cosmopolitan intellectuals and artists and the small-town culture in which they can find themselves.

The recent work of Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan has stranded intellectuals (or would-be intellectuals) in elaborately erected rural locations “Winter Sleep” centers on a middle aged writer, “The Wild Pear Tree” on one freshly released from university. As these films suggest, Ceylan is especially fond of talkative male characters who utter supercilious remarks at every turn.

Though there are moments of quiet humor in Ceylan’s late films much of it at the expense of his male intellectuals it’s obvious where he positions himself. Laden with literary dialogue, the late work seems more strident in its demands to be taken seriously.

Duprat, Cohn and Duprat take a much broader comic approach to the fish-out-of-water urbanized intellectual. Aside from his own towering self-importance, Mantovani’s days in Salas are marked by a host of broadly comic characters.

Cacho, the mayor, tries to use cultural events to shore up his voting base; Antonio, the old friend who married the girlfriend Mantovani abandoned 30-odd years before, whose passive-aggressive insecurity is poorly concealed by barbeques and pig hunting stories; the small-town dandy who imagines his doctorate makes him special; Antonio’s would-be son-in-law, whose only line in the film is to mimic the cry of a wild pig.

“The people of Argentina should be proud,” the mayor declared at the reception welcoming Mantovani back home. “The Pope! Messi! The Queen of the Netherlands! Now, Daniel Mantovani!”

The parochial cast of characters with which Duprat, Cohn and Duprat populate Salas allows the film to poke fun at the idiocy of rural life as surely as Mantovani has done in his novels.

There are a few exceptions. Irene (Andrea Frigerio), the devoted girlfriend the hero abandoned, is impervious to the comic jabs, remaining sympathetic if only for being long-suffering.

At his most imperious and self-absorbed, Mantovani is entertainingly ridiculous, but his observations on the craft of fiction-writing aren’t laughable. Near the end of the film he has a chat with Ramiro the young fellow who mans the front desk of his hotel, who gave him a binder of short stories to read during his stay.

He praises the young man’s prose for its clarity and simplicity. When Ramiro takes this as a criticism, Mantovani demurs.

“What is simple and clear can be subversive and disturbing,” he points out, noting this was a quality of Kafka’s writing. “Making things simple is an act of artistic kindness.”

Here, screenwriter Andres Duprat seems to be offering a justification for the broadly comic world he’s drawn, and cast of clownish creatures with which he’s peopled it.

“Citizen” at no point approaches the quality of Kafka, of course, and the filmmakers badly over-extend themselves by claiming such a genealogy for their comic romp. Mantovani is not unlike many contemporary politicians. You root for him because he’s the least bad option.

“The Distinguished Citizen” will be projected Saturday, Oct. 20, 8 p.m. at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil. For more, see https://metropoliscinema.net/film/100/El%20Ciudadano%20Ilustre

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 18, 2018, on page 16.

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