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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Comme si Dante était un enfant caché dans l’armoire...

by Jean-Pierre Leonardini

Castellucci’s “Purgatorio” in Avignon: As If Dante Were a Child Hiding in the Wardrobe

In "Purgatorio", the second part of Romeo Castellucci’s triptych after Dante’s “Divina Commedia”, the artist stages the most secret expressions of the subconscious.

Translated Thursday 17 July 2008, by Isabelle Métral

Avignon’s 62nd Festival, from our special correspondent

"Purgatorio", the second part of the trilogy inspired to Romeo Castellucci by Dante’s "Divina Commedia", is as deeply moving as was "Inferno", but its formal elaboration is completely different. [1] Instead of a vast display of mankind subjected to various forms of modern catastrophe, we are now in the private sphere. What is about to unroll slowly in front of our eyes takes place within the realm of the holy trinity: father, mother and son, respectively designated on projected tables as first, second, and third stars.

One is immediately taken aback by the set, for a regular set it is, of a hyper-realist kind, which shows a stylish upper-middle-class modern kitchen, richly stored with all kinds of objects, where a mother and her son first exchange a few scant words on trivial matters.

Then a sitting room. The father, an executive, comes home from work exhausted and does not touch the meal his wife has just heated up. He embraces her. “No,” she sobs, “not tonight.” And she goes to bed. Now wearing the hat he asked for, the father, at his request, is then joined by the son . They are going to “play cowboys”… I can’t remember at what time (most probably at the very beginning) one is suddenly gripped by a sense of strange uneasiness which keeps increasing until it becomes unbearable when, the stage now deserted, voices off stage can be heard, gross words, sounds of panting, moaning, and the son weeping: a child is being raped. At that very moment, we become as eavesdroppers to an unseen drama. The father staggers back on stage like a drunkard. The worst of it is that the child now sits on his sire’s lap, with a faint gesture of solace matched by words of appeasement: “It’s all over now, Daddy, it’s all over…”

Souls in transit

Romeo Castelluci believes that Purgatory lies in the shadow-less reality of everyday habits, in the dull daily chores imposed upon us by life’s tedious vocation, slaves of routine, constantly repeating the same gestures. Dante himself, on that early Easter morning in the year 1300, having come through the infernal circles, now arrives with Virgil at the foot of a mountain in the middle of the sea (reminiscent, when one thinks of it, of René Daumal’s strange enigmatic novel, Mont Analogue). This is a relatively secure place of transit for redeemable sinners. Dante’s vision was in marked contrast with the views of his fellow contemporaries who saw flames and fire spitting out of purgatory, a sort of antechamber to Hell, really. Dante viewed purgatory as a necessary passage for thusly alleviated sinners on their road to Paradise. In her preface to the bilingual edition of Purgatoire, Jacqueline Risset reminds us that Dante was a child when, in 1274, the Oecumenical Council of Lyons accepted the existence of Purgatory as part of the Church’s dogma. [2]

Spectators who are intent on tracing through Castellucci’s tableaux the original poetic monument in which the Italian language has its foundations may note the sentence uttered by Marco, a soul in transit, in Canto XVI: “If today’s world has gone astray, the cause lies in yourself, and must be sought in you”, but the legacy is more apparent in the literally Dantesque illusion created by this decidedly incomparable artist.

Take for instance the scene where, after the irreparable has been committed, the child standing out like a silhouette beneath a gigantic round magnifying glass, watches monstrous ever-changing and moving shapes file past interminably, like the clouds that Hamlet points out to Polonius (“Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?”) while a terrific din strikes our ears. Carnivorous flowers with mouths opening wide, erectile bushes, anthropomorphic animals - these are but a few instances from a long list of items which lend themselves to subjective interpretation as readily as the Rorschach inkblot test used for psychological evaluation.

The ultimate image, before the series of the child’s nightmarish visions comes to an end - he watches the expressions of his subconscious file past (in a pitch-dark camera oscura, a magic lantern for the black dream of the primal horror scene) - the ultimate image is that of the father with his hat on forcing his way through some kind of jungle. And the huge, Goldorak-style toys with which the child is confronted at night when he is not hiding in the wardrobe with the fleur-de-lis motif may well be the latter-day descendants of the archaic giants that Dante met along his way.

The fatal contagion

It is useless to try and trace textual roots through the thick, mysterious forest of signs planted by Castellucci. His Purgatory ends with the vision of a new father figure played by a misshapen actor, shaking through all his limbs, whose convulsive movements an extraordinarily lanky grown-up man, disguised as a child lying on the floor, suddenly tries to appease, until he himself falls a victim to the frightening disease, whether Saint Vitus’s dance, or epileptic fit…

The contagion is fatal. Infernal, rather. Once the shock is over, it gives way to interminable applause. The need for tragedy in art is incommensurable.


[1] At Châteaublanc, parc des expositions, on July 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, and 19 at 6 pm.

[2] Jacqueline Risset’s masterly translation of Dante’s Divina Commedia was published in a bilingual edition by Garnier-Flammarion.

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