‘Is-Sriep Reġgħu Saru Velenużi’ and the (wrong) Great Expectations. Or: Even history is fiction (and tells its own stories)

Translated by Teodor Reljic

(Original post here)

When I embarked upon my research into the social and political memory of the post-colonial period in Malta over ten years ago, a lot of my interviewees betrayed their satisfaction at the promise of my project – namely, that it would finally serve to fill an historical void which marked the archipelago… and its library shelves. 

In other words, that my anthropological research could potentially offer them a ‘real’ and ‘impartial’ reconstruction of a series of recent facts which had up until that point escaped such sober consideration for a number of reasons, some of which were elaborated upon in lavish detail in journal articles and the biographies of political figures. 

In their eyes, I was the outsider free from local political bias, clientelism, family and village connections, and so capable of delivering a neutral and complete assessment of what happened from Independence onwards, without any skewed perspectives of interference, from one side or another. Marred by neither red nor blue. 

But while history has always played a central role in my research, being the good anthropologist that I am (and a political anthropologist, at that) meant that my intentions would have skewed towards a different path. Not so much towards a compilation of facts and events, but more towards the tracing of a mise en discourse (or even mise en intrigue redolent of a Proppian schema of heroes, anti-heroes and symbolic and ritualistic objects), of a population declaring itself marked with the incurable ‘sickness’ of an intrinsic, atemporal disagreement, the pillar of a (proudly) embarrassed cultural intimacy (see Herzfeld) and, at the same time, the key to an indispensable political patrimony. Apart from being a point of convergence between the individual and collective (and also cultural) memory. 

In any case, writing and transmitting that which is true or not true, or attempting to pinpoint which side or party was at more deeper fault and deserved the better portion of moral blame, did interest me, but only up to a certain point. The silences and omissions were what truly appealed to me – the persons to which they pointed to and those I was told to avoid, the differences among sources, the imbalance that characterised them, the facts which failed to crystallise into events. And then, the proemio, the long disclaimers which preceded our interviews, emphasising the difficulty, or risk, in revealing aspects of that particular past, the ambivalence which flavours all of the stories. 

In short, all that which lies beyond and around what they claimed to have experienced – also, what they claimed they were supposed to say about what they had been through, or what was necessary to claim, express or emphasise when talking about these experiences, according to a wider, oral (yet to be written) vulgata. 

Now, according to Geertz, the important thing is not to observe what people do, but what they think they are doing. Contini reminds us of the heuristic value in the fractures of the collective memory, while Ginzburg stresses that history is made up of not just the ‘true’ and the ‘false’, but also the fictitious

And so, ‘historical’ evidence is a somewhat loaded term. Before it can claim to be based on so-called solid sources (which will always be marked by a subjective process of selection, reconstruction and transmission, “historical narratives do not speak about reality – rather, about who constructs it” as Ginzburg points out), it needs to be articulated, in the past tense, along varied trajectories. 

Trajectories like the enargeia, the immediacy tied to eyewitness testimony as Polibio reminds us; or that of evidentia and inlustratio, concepts with Cicero ties to enargeia: recounting is, at the end of the day, the act of making once again visible and palpable that which no longer exists. Re-representing a fact from the past as if it were once again visible to the naked eye in all of its physical integrity and vitality. 

If we were to circle back to narrations and reconstructions of the past, we realise that the ‘as if contract’ is, in effect, a fundamental piece of the puzzle; it reminds us that fiction (be it rhetorical, narrative, poetic – even artistic) remains an equally useful tool in the search for truth. (After all, who’s to say that any given document or date was not produced ad hoc?). 

But as Ginzburg underlines, and as I also like to point out in a rather lengthy – and academic, but nonetheless intriguing – article… the truth is never the point of departure. At most, it’s the point of arrival. “Historians (and, in their own way, poets too) make a profession out of something which forms part of everyone’s daily lives: disentangling what is true, false and fictitious, which is the cornerstone of our being in the world”* 

Why is it that every time Malta is processed through fiction, it has to be done through a hyperreal lens that makes pageantry out of national identity?

Now, if even history itself is built on slippery trajectories, why burden an explicit product of fiction like Is-Sriep Reġgħu Saru Velenużi (A Vipers’ Pit) with historical responsibility, even expecting a granular degree of accuracy when it comes to the use of language, of accents and even the physical appearance of certain characters? Pointing out alleged shortcomings in representing a crystallised version of how things ought to be? Isn’t it a little bit like leaving a restaurant in a huff upon learning that the chef who baked your pizza wasn’t, in fact, Italian? Or assuming that the cast of a film set in France speak only perfect French from start to finish? Aren’t we fed up with all these homogenising stances on the basis of pre-conceived essentialised correspondences?

Where is the logic in taking to task a cinematic representation of a controversial period of Maltese history on the basis of rigid ideas of historical accuracy? All the more so when the film in question is already adapted from a fictional source – a novel – and that the very historical period it covers remains fraught and fragile even in the historical memory, with historians and their sources only shakily confident, at best, on their reckoning with it. 

Why is it that every time Malta is processed through fiction, it has to be done through a hyperreal lens that makes pageantry out of national identity? 

I make reference to some baker-fresh critiques of the film – and some which are less so – and which were published soon after the film’s release in local cinemas. There’s many legitimate critiques among them – don’t get me wrong – but others are also tellingly marred by a sense of arrogance and preconception, with some missing the point of the film almost entirely. 

Apart from the strand of criticism which betrays an amnesia of the ‘as if convenction’ between the author and the audience (see Iser), which asks you to not apply the same criteria of ‘true’ and ‘false’ that you would apply to an historical or ethnographic documentary, what struck me most keenly was how certain viewers expected the film to be thoroughly exhaustive when it came to the historical context in which it is set – both in terms of its 1984 and 2012 timelines. That certain things were not spoonfed, such as why one half of the population felt as though the island belonged to them, with the other half feeling as though they were suffering under the yoke of a de facto “dictatorship”. 

In other words, that the ‘good guys’ were not explicitly shown as having good enough reason to do what they did, and that the ‘bad guys’ did not appear to be all that bad (perhaps it’s because they weren’t to begin with?). Why doesn’t the film take sides? Or maybe it takes the ‘wrong’ side? Which faction does ‘A Vipers’ Pit’ align itself with? And so on and so forth.  

And that final question: Why does a group of Catholic fundamentalists indoctrinate a family man into serving as a kamikaze warrior of sorts, to be sent to kill the most important political figure in Malta at the time (a concept totally alien to contemporary realities, right? Right?).

‘A Vipers’ Pit’ remains ambivalent on all of this. It swerves around these questions, in an appropriately serpentine fashion. It leaves clues, trails and passages while showing us the past through the lens of a particular ‘present’ – that of 2012 – which already feels nostalgic, poised as it was at the edge of an abyss few would have been able to imagine. (Some who would have otherwise been able to recount it with a particular verve are, alas, no longer with us…) 

But ‘A Vipers’ Pit’ falls short of expectations… if what’s expected is a neatly packaged product ready for unproblematic export. Any hopes of a ‘balanced’, complete and correct representation of the ‘70s, ‘80s (and the ‘60s, too? What shall we do with them?), are left to crash-land on the rocks like a felled chimera. All those who walk into the cinema expecting to find a detailed and complete illustration, almost a manual (admit it, the desire for one is strong), of all of the gestures which animated the two sides during “our own Years of Lead”**, will emerge disappointed, maybe even embittered. 

That said, the film is far from perfect. I’ve never hesitated to point out its shortcomings to director Martin Bonnici (whom I thank for providing me the accompanying photos you see here) and to screenwriter Teodor Reljic, with whom I happen to share a life, a house and the caretaking duties of two wonderful cats

Among these one may list the infelicitous framing of an early scene outside a catechism class, as well as the initial flirtation between Noel and Frances (effectively leading to a love story that is altogether dull, but at the same time – who says that a love story in a film must be a love story redolent of film?) – neither of which lend appropriate weight and resonance to the dialogue. Then there’s also a scene delivered in Italian which I find to be just terrible – badly acted and utterly unconvincing, marred by an unforgivable lexical error that would have given away a non-Italian speaker in an instant; an awkward question posed by Frances to Noel towards the end – asking who the woman in a childhood photo is – which should have been phrased differently to avoid sounding so naive and embarrassingly forced. 

The excessively shaky dream sequences, the blood on the hands, the scant encounter between a young Noel and the snake (even if it is, in fact, a snake which appears only as a  child’s frightened reflex, ripe to be rendered as allegory and thus left open to many readings). 

Finally, the far too rushed way in which Richard’s ultimate fate is revealed – bereft of pauses and flashbacks; in fact, no suggestive imagery at all. There was something almost Homeric about the promise of seeing Richard one last time on the boat – a lonely figure overlooking a blackened sea. I would have kept it in. 

But I’ll stop there, and leave any further attempts at film criticism to the experts. 

Having said all this, however, ‘A Vipers’ Pit’ remains a great film. It really does. It certainly runs circles around the vast majority of Maltese feature films, which despite being prematurely celebrated, remain neither here nor there. Films which hardly inspire a rewatch, and in fact make a plunge back into Marsa traffic more desirable (Central Link too… yes, one will find traffic there as well). But not ‘A Vipers’ Pit’. You’d want to rewatch this one. Because of its powerful undercurrents, the hint of something which remains between the lines, like an unnerving voice, a poignant echo, a disquietude that escapes articulation, at least at first. 

The story slides under your skin, despite its many imperfections. Even by means of what it leaves unsaid, of what is half-mentioned. Maybe it’s because of this, its rapid and elusive brushstrokes, hued in violent colours to paint a tragic canvas populated by lives twisted out of true, suffocated and fated for repetition. And these are universal concepts. As much as other, more grandiose universal representations. 

Isn’t being locked into the tunnel-vision perspective of one side of a political war – blind to reason and the true motivations of the other side, and marked by violent tendencies – the cornerstone of political extremism? Isn’t the creation of an overly generalised idea of who the enemy is, their identity intermeshed with that of a specific group (not an “ethnic” one in this case, though it may as well be), often at the root of so much violence and conflict? And aren’t the same objects of hate often just pretexts and symbols, whose elimination is an act of power first and foremost, an act of substitution and reformulation on the part of a group keen to re-establish the same dynamics of power, control and the management of both symbolic and concrete resources? 

And on the subject of the killing of the king (Frazer, guys, Frazer!), there were also those who complained about the fleeting representation of Mintoff, who is effectively visible for just a few seconds, appearing as a mere silhouette in a window. 

But to my mind, this deliberate omission makes for an effective representation of the fog which still pervades local collective memory, and which, at the same time, negates any possibility of humanising (or individualising) the enemy. Which is expressed through shadows, disembodied voices, sudden gunfire outside a ‘kazin’, anecdotal accounts of injustices suffered, exile to Sicily, heavy-handed impositions on the educational sector (even if strengthening public education at the expense of private and religious schools feels like a reasonable enough endeavour), paper flyers and radio programmes which anyway signal the pervasiveness of political factionalism as a key component of tangible, mundane reality, la materia del quotidiano.

So there is actually a lot in there – a lot of Malta “to export”, and which finds parallels in other countries and places, and without needing a postcard or pocket encyclopedia which points to this and that, and which is a regrettable recurring feature of many local cultural products.

‘A Vipers’ Pit’ is also rather generous when it comes to the dialogue between power and speculation, and the bitter taste it leaves behind. The title sequence grabs you and refuses to let go, leaving you hypnotically suspended between immersion and fascination brought about by the story’s expert blending of past and present, right up until the final gut-punch (which you’d think would be the most violent one the film throws your way, until the dedicatory end card lands an even stronger blow), so tragically symbolic of what the island’s subsequent (and avoidable, goddamn it) destiny would have been from 2013 onwards. 

But there’s more. 

So you’re left there on the plush red cinema seat, to brood over a conflicting set of emotions, oscillating between the gaps that would have been filled had this micro-budget feature been given an even slightly bigger financial boost, and that which ‘A Vipers’ Pit’ has nonetheless managed to offer up, and as the end credits roll you can’t help but think that nothing could be more true than the fiction you’ve just witnessed. That this story hurts precisely because deep down, you’d wish it were really and truly a work of pure fiction, a cinematic invention. That turning back could be a viable possibility, that no lives, and no truths, would be murdered and encased in concrete, or thrown to the bottom of the sea – on screen or otherwise.

Then you leave the cinema (Eden in Paceville, say no more) and take in the surroundings. The de facto film set of cement, glass, misused money which trickles back to the few, laundering and speculation, and you realise that the film is not over yet. There’s one scene which remains, and which is set in 2021. You’re in it. Immersed in a totality so damnably tangible, suffocating and dark.

You realise that this is, ultimately, the truth. The truth of how things are – the final point of arrival. And there’s no exit here.

*Carlo Ginzburg, Il filo e le tracce, Feltrinelli, Milano, 2015, p. 13

** “Our own Years of Lead”: a definition offered up by more than one person throughout the course of my research, and heartily welcomed by those, like myself, who share their date and place of birth with the kidnapping – a prelude to a (real) assassination – of the head of the Italian government in 1978.