Ancient myths survive in our contemporary time, and that is a fact. But why? And how come they are alive not only in literature and drama but also in the creative arts, cinema and TV commercials? Based on the proceedings of a symposium held in Treviso, Italy, on the bicentenary of the local Liceo Classico, La nuova musa degli eroi. Dal mythos alla fiction investigates the contemporary appeal and uses of the classics and does it well. The volume presents a preface by the three editors and organizers of the incontri, followed by eight scholarly contributions dedicated to classical heroes in the work of contemporary film directors and writers. The ‘new muse’ of the title is Jean Cocteau’s tenth muse, cinema; it is the art form of the present day, in which ancient myths and heroes feel at home, one may say. This is confirmed both by the growing number of screen adaptations of ancient tales available today, and by the different interpretations thereby proposed. In addition, a number of Italian writers from the 20th and the 21st centuries have looked at and taken inspiration from Ulysses/Odysseus or else have proposed hypermodern translations of myths.
Chapters 1 and 6 introduce key-issues, including creativity, orality, authority, reception, and the art of translation. They make an interesting read, and are undoubtedly of great help for the occasional reader who may know little of the classics and less of their permanence in contemporary art. Chapter 1 explores at length the process of mythopoiesis, how ancient myths have been generated and handed down generation after generation, and how the work of Homer can be related to the work of the contemporary film director. Here, the blind poet is taken as a metaphor of creativity whose visual impairment is not a handicap but rather contributes to the poet’s enhanced vocal and musical ability. The author argues that the contemporary film director is inevitably blind but that his blindness differs from Homer’s because unlike him he does not know his audience; he creates the artwork first, and then he presents it in public. Homer, on the other hand, shared the experience of the performance with the audience; he was literally face to face with his addressee, always attentive to his reaction and thus ready to change the narrative accordingly. A film director is also blind in the sense that he (and his audience) may not be familiar with myths in the way that classical audiences were, and so his narration cannot take too much for granted. Chapter 6, arguably the most accessible in the collection, adds to the considerations above and reiterates the need for a willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience. This study considers the question of reception and its crucial role for the work of the director who seeks the emotional engagement of the audience through a careful construction of the scene — its setting and context. Fidelity to the source is hard to maintain; thus in the reworking of a classic the director will select what s/he deems most important in the pursuit of fidelity to the spirit of his source.
Both essays suggest a number of reflections upon the dynamics of cinematic translation for the contemporary audience that are further explored in Chapters 2, 3, 4 and 5. Here, the focus is on some among the most interesting, innovative, experimental and popular films based on ancient myths. Chapter 2 studies representations of Hercules/Heracles in the genre of satire and in peplum cinema, where the classical hero is an icon of redemption and hope for the marginalised. Recently, the work of film philologists has contributed to the survival and the development of classical studies and thus to the possibility of a philological approach, a technique proper for the cinematic rendition of the classics. Chapter 3 offers a stimulating reflection on the necessity of the classics in our contemporary world in which the production of culture and the advancement of technology are closely linked. In this context, cinema provides an efficacious tool for the conservation and dissemination of ancient tales thanks to its communicative potential, which distinguishes it from other art forms such as literature and drama. The author goes on to investigate the appeal of Medea in twenty-first-century cinema, providing a detailed account of that myth as reworked by directors Pier Paolo Pasolini (1969), Lars Von Trier (1988) and more recently Arturo Ripstein (2000). Medea’s popularity rests primarily on the question of her “ethnic inadequacy”, the fact that she is a foreigner and an outcast in Jason’s land; and the feminist appeal of a woman who sacrifices everything for the love of her man. The identity question is crucial to Pasolini, for whom Medea fails to integrate because she wants to return to an ancestral world of magic. Von Trier devotes special attention to her act of revenge to “shock his audience … and convey through cinema that deep sense of the tragic which is typical of Greek drama”. Ripstein sets the story in the slums of Mexico City. Using Seneca’s model, as opposed to Euripides’, the Latin-American director proposes a free version of the Medea myth to represent a contemporary society in which images, TV cameras and the media dominate. The three films demonstrate the specificity of the cinematic medium, the unique capacity of its languages to tell and retell ancient stories. Chapter 4 reflects on filmic renditions of historical events and people taking its cue from Anthony Mann’s 1964 Fall of the Roman Empire and Ridley Scott’s remaking of that film ( Gladiator) with special attention to the controversial character of the last Roman emperor, Commodus. This is an interesting study that brings together historical sources and the tradition to question modes of representation and how these differ from one age to the next. What makes Commodus a controversial character, it is argued, is not so much what he actually did or was like but rather the ways in which historians, poets and film directors have portrayed him. Along the same lines, Chapter 5 investigates the representation of Sebastiane, head of the Roman Army, in Derek Jarman’s eponymous film (1976), an example of the use of the classics both as “a personal and artistic search for the unexpected and scandalous manifestations of the sacred in everyday life”. The essay draws attention to the signifying elements of this provocative film including its soundtrack and use of anachronisms, which Jarman uses strategically to underline and exploit the analogies between the ancient and the modern in an attempt to normalise homosexuality. Sebastiane is also a Christ-like figure who becomes a sacrificial victim in the end — his martyrdom echoing AIDS and sexual discrimination in contemporary society as opposed to the traditional notion of his death by the soldiers’ arrows.
The permanence of the classics relies on their translation in films as well as literature and drama. The closing chapters are fittingly dedicated to aspects of translation and the use of myth by a number of influential Italian writers. Chapter 7 explores images of Ulysses/Odysseus and their evolution across the centuries from the works of Dante and Petrarca, who criticised his want of experience, to Boccaccio, Ariosto and Tasso, who praised him, the Romantics, who saw him as the emblem of knowledge, and D’Annunzio, for whom Odysseus was a solitary warrior, and Pascoli, fascinated by his troubled and nostalgic soul. More recently, Gozzano has used parody to demythologize the Greek hero while Pavese has drawn attention to the significance of myth for the individual, and Saba has traced an autobiographical connection with Ulysses. During the twenty-first century, the myth has been deconstructed, its fragments scattered throughout the work of Quasimodo, Ungaretti, Bandini and Merini. The atrocities of WWII echo in Levi’s re-imagining of a man whose only desire was to gain virtue and knowledge. Whether from a prison cell or a concentration camp, the myth of Odysseus can give voice to a man’s heroic struggle for survival. The volume ends with another interesting contribution dedicated to the vexed question of the translatability of the classics in the contemporary context. Here, the concept of hypermodern translation is analysed — a viable compromise between the contemporary writer, the target language and the source; alongside the task of the translator, who can be a cultural mediator or become an author proper (e.g. director Zack Snyder in 300). Those who take some liberties and thus betray their source can sometimes obtain unexpected results, as is the case with Stefano Benni, a contemporary Italian writer whose renditions of Plautus and Aristophanes in a slang, low register idiom are of remarkable quality. The same can be said of Alessandro Baricco, who does away with classical references and especially gods and demigods. Hypermodern translations of this kind are often deprecated by classicists but praised by the (so-called “uneducated” masses. Their success, as is rightly observed, is due to their specificity — they speak to and of the here and now, and so they are short-lived; unlike their eternal and forever appealing sources they are deemed to pay the high price of quick oblivion, which is in itself a cultural loss.
One of the contributors maintains that “an audience in search of culture is not necessarily willing to strive for it”. In the age of reality shows and trash TV one could hardly disagree with him. In its scholarly yet accessible way this is precisely what the volume does as it tackles academic issues and high culture matters in an easy and clear manner. The eight essays are all extremely well researched, with references to classical and modern works that the average reader will be at least partially familiar with, while the not-so-well educated reader should not have to struggle through these pages. On the down side two aspects are perhaps worth noting: first, the fact that the volume is written in Italian, which unfortunately narrows its target audience; and second, apart from citing names and affiliation, there is no indication of who the contributors are and what they do (are they film directors, amateurs, professors?). Finally, since we live in an age where looks matter and less is not necessarily more, I feel that such a valuable work deserved a different and more eloquent cover, one that could reflect its highly communicative content.