translated by Lisa Kramer Taruschio
The lights dim.
The only sound in the empty theater is the buzzing of the old projector.
A band of light sends myriad dust motes dancing in the air while the strains of a melancholy piano send the first feeble notes of their melody out into the dark.
I sit down on one of the velvet seats just in time to see the screen light up in black and white and the black and white mix together and create shapes, actions–an old and monochromatic imitation of life.
On the big screen men with bandanas around their necks are driving combustion engine sports cars and the women, entranced, have lowered their sunglasses to see them better.
The silent film fills up with laughter and shouting. Mouths open and shut without a sound, while the piano keeps pace with the background buzz.
I’m watching the ghosts here in the dark screening room, memories of men and women that time has transformed into shadows. I watch them moving, speaking, mechanically reciting their lines every time someone tweaks the dusty old film into motion. And every single time they laugh or dance, perhaps pretending that they are still alive, still beautiful, still young.
I watch the actors whose souls, trapped in celluloid, have managed to survive entrapment in that other fragile wrapping that we call the body.
Sometimes, if only for a moment when they look straight into the camera, I get the impression that I see something in their eyes, a sad look that the ghosts cast my way from their 35 millimeter prison. But it only lasts a second. In the next frame the faces are joyful again and the orchestra plays some lighthearted tune. Everyone forgets about that moment of melancholy—which may never actually have happened.
The show goes on.
At one point I notice the familiar cigarette burns on the side of the screen and I know the film is almost over. A few seconds later there’s a flash and the screen is blank again, a pale white, that non-color that the projector gives off when it is running on empty.
I leave my seat and go back into the projection room where the metal creature calmly awaits me. I remove the finished film and replace it with the next. There’s a second of darkness and then the people in the film come to life again and take up where they left off, as if nothing has happened.
The scene changes. A fellow appears, shyly offering a bouquet of flowers to the girl he has a crush on. I watch the young man; he must be thirty at the most, and he will always be thirty. And he will always love that girl; he will offer her flowers like those forever. And every time, she’ll blush sweetly, shyly, and she’ll cover her face with her hands, but she won’t be able to completely hide the smile of pleasure that brightens her delicate features.
She won’t age. No wrinkles will ever dent that perfect skin; the years will leave no signs on that picture of splendor and innocence.
And that innocent love scene will endure for those who have given over their bodies to the magic of film and to the embrace of silence.
In the empty theater I am wrapped in the notes of the music, the only evidence that’s left of that floral gift of well over seventy years ago.
Where are they now, that man and that woman? They are no more. No longer.
Aged now, faded flowers. The young on that screen stay beautiful and young whenever someone replays an old reel.
It’s late now. The film is almost over.
The string section accompanies the grand finale. I stand and return to the projection room. But as I walk, I am still watching the film, and again I seem to read something in those eyes, something other than the happiness they continue to show. Their bodies and their mouths are faithful to the script, but there is a desperate look in their eyes, an imploring begging look.
Please, they seem to say, don’t leave.
But the burn marks reappear again at the sides of the screen, the last secret characters in each film.
As I walk, the joyful faces watch me, their eyes shining and wretched.
Don’t shut us off, they plead, stay with us. Please. Because they also know. They know that their make-believe life hinges solely on the fact that someone is watching. It’s the double bottomed cylinder, the secret behind the magic.
I stop in the doorway to watch the last scene.
The music swells powerfully. The good have won and love triumphs. As usual.
They’re watching me, resigned. Maybe they too are aware of the holes at their sides, and know that time has almost run out.
A flash breaks into their dark eyes and the screen goes white even as the music gives way to background static.
Now there is just an empty theater.
I close the door and leave the ghosts to rest.
Learn more about Lorenzo Crescentini