Magnificent Presence follows sweet, naïve, lonely Pietro (played by actor Elio Germano), a gay pastry chef and wannabe actor who is short on worldly experiences but high on a gentle, loving nature, as he scores an incredible apartment, leaving the old apartment he shared with his cousin Maria, and moves into his new one, only to discover that he is not the only occupant. It is the latest feature film from Italian-Turkish writer/director Ferzan Özpetek. Magnificent Presence recently screened at the opening night of "Open Roads: New Italian Cinema" at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City.
Pietro's fellow non-rent-paying tenants are, in fact, ghosts of World War II: seven adults and a child who were all part of an acting troupe. These ghosts are dead, but they don't know it. What the film doesn't tell you (but you quickly assume) is that these ghosts are Jewish, and their fate fell at the hands of the Nazis.
When asked about the inspiration for this screenplay, which Özpetek co-wrote with Federica Pontremoli, Özpetek says, "One of the things that interested me is the shimmering between what is real and what is not." We see Pietro unknowingly stalk a lover and get rejected by him; later, we watch him take in a transvestite as she cleans herself up after an altercation on the street. In this journey Pietro traverses the line of appropriate behavior in love (the response of "no" is the reality that the unrequited love is in fact not at all real, nor does it possess a tangible future), and we see him reach out to a fellow outsider (the transvestite), an outsider who is very real, who is comfortable and at peace in her own skin.
"Of course, the transvestite is something but also appears to be something, or someone else. And this relationship between truth and fiction is clearly one that is reflected in all of the supporting characters in one way or another," Özpetek shares.
All this happens while the ghosts look on. At first Pietro is frightened by their existence, but later he accepts them and deals with their proneness to interject advice and pop up at inopportune moments.
"It's certainly true that both Pietro and the ghosts are strangers in a way, in their surroundings," Özpetek elaborates. The ghosts don't realize they are living in the future, and Pietro isn't actively participating in his present but instead living a rather solitary and limited existence.
"I've been asked often whether the film expresses a certain nostalgia for the past, and I've always said, 'Well, no, if it's nostalgia, it's more for the present,'" states Özpetek. "What Pietro really wants is to live in the present. On the part of the ghosts, they are more interested in the future, which is Pietro's present. They are not stuck in their time. They want to keep performing; they want to be seen in some shape or form."
Spoiler alert: In the end the magnificent presence, the ghosts, understand what has become of them and venture into the outside world for the first time; they are able to leave the house they are trapped in and are thus released and move forward, as Pietro finally takes steps to actively participate in each moment of his own life, the present.
It's nice to see Italian cinema take a stab at using the fabric of European history, in this case the atrocities of the fate of 6 million in World War II, to teach a valuable lesson about living life and seizing the moment. Today's fast-paced culture and technology-addled world loses sight of the value of the present, the moment, all too easily, which contributes to higher levels of personal unhappiness and dissatisfaction. Better to accept and carpe diem, as Pietro learns.
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