'The Academy of the Muses' (L'Accademia delle muse'): Locarno Review

Academy of the Muses Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Festival del Film Locarno

Academy of the Muses Still - H 2015

An impressive combo of high art and recognizable emotions.

The latest film from eclectic Spanish filmmaker José Luis Guerin is an exploration of the fine lines between art and life, fiction and documentary, intellectual rigor and emotional truths.

"To teach is to seduce," says the protagonist of The Academy of the Muses (L’Accademia delle muse), a low-fi but beguiling mixture of intellectual discourse and emotional rollercoaster from Spanish maestro José Luis Guerin (In the City of Sylvia). Again exploring the porous borders between fiction and documentary, Guerin’s latest follows the Italian philology professor Raffaele Pinto — played by actual Italian philology professor, Raffaele Pinto — who teaches a class on "musedom" at the University of Barcelona, where he instructs the mostly female student body about the muses in antique and early Italian texts and how women could function as muses even today.

The result is a heady concoction that, initially, is academically stimulating but rather straightforward but which grows increasingly complex as — in a neat echo of Guerin’s constant oscillation between fictional and non-fictional elements — revelations of a private nature call the boundaries between literature and real life into question. Though somewhat hidden in the Locarno fest’s Signs of Life sidebar, this Academy should end up traveling extensively on the highbrow end of the festival circuit and possibly find small but appreciative audiences in cinema-loving metropolises such as Paris and New York.

Pinto, a balding, bespectacled and somewhat unkempt Neapolitan in his early sixties, actually teaches at the Philology Faculty of the University of Barcelona, where the film was shot, and the director presents his pseudo-documentary as a "pedagogic experience," that is "filmed by J.L. Guerin." Since most of the poetry texts used during the lectures are from Dante and Pinto and some of the students are Italian, discussions go back and forth between the course’s official Spanish, Dante’s late-medieval Italian, contemporary standard Italian, Catalan — which is used locally by the students in Barcelona — and, in an unexpected, very lyrical excursion outside the classroom, Sardinian.

Here as elsewhere in the film, there’s a sense of porous borders being crossed over and over again, without major problems of comprehension — all are, of course, Latin languages — though there’s a sense too that each holds certain specifics that can never be fully translated into another. In a film that’s so concerned with poetry, which is basically the art of saying more (and in more beautiful ways) with less, exploring the opportunities and limitations of language is, of course, essential. Thankfully, Guerin doesn’t tackle this topic in dry lectures but simply lets it float to the surface by organically switching between the various tongues, thus offering audiences practical proof of how a language is both a necessary and enriching — yet still an always imperfect — way to reach either a mutual understanding or suggest something of the sublime. 

The film’s early setup feels like a documentary, with Guerin only mentioned as the director and the editor in the credits (there are no production design or even cinematographer credits, though Guerin handled the camera himself) and each new scene captioned with the date it was (supposedly?) shot. The film starts at the beginning of the semester, in early November, when Professor Pinto discusses the one of the guiding principles of music and poetry, namely as a way to create order in a chaotic world. Also insightful is the notion that since Orpheus, poetry has been about creating a dialogue with the dead (note the name of the film’s ad-hoc production company: Los Films de Orfeo) and the idea that poets created the "idea of love" after man lost any sense of beauty, with the muses thus carrying out a "civilizing function."

Already in the second week of classes, Pinto explores the idea of adultery in the Divine Comedy, and the heated discussions start to spill over from the dime-a-dozen lecture hall into the university’s corridors, nearby cafés and cars. Questions such as whether the female muses, which are there to inspire (often male) artists, are passive or active figures, lead to further passionate debates among the students. A discussion about the possible confusion between desire and sexuality is also provocative, with the professor suggesting that desire doesn’t necessarily have to do with what the genitals want. 

As the classes continue into December, several female figures start to stand out: brunette Emanuela (Emanuela Forgetta) is a fiery Italian student whose opinions often coincide with her teacher’s; Mireia (Mireia Iniesta) is a dirty-blond Spanish student interested in 21st-century ideas of gender who’s going through a tough time in her private life and is trying to use poetry to survive; Carolina (Carolina Llacher) is a short-haired Catalan graduate who likes to dabble in free verse in her spare time — to the amusing horror of her Dante-scholar professor; and Rosa (Rosa Delor Muns) is the middle-aged Spanish wife of Pinto, who berates him for the fact he uses literary dialectics to defend to his increasingly questionable behavior. 

Pinto, like everyone else here someone with no previous acting credits, might avow he wants to transform today’s women into active and heroic muses, but there’s more than a passing suspicion he’s most comfortable with decidedly old-school notions about gender roles. It’s refreshing to see that Guerin actually thrives on these kinds of contradictions, rather than ensuring that each person has a set of coherent convictions. The film’s final reels actually use some of the professor’s incongruities to take the narrative somewhere unexpected, though here the documentary illusion is broken since it would have been impossible for Guerin to have been present at all the conversations necessary to tell this particular story. Without giving too much away, the film's third act explores (in stark contrast to the solace Mireia finds in literature when her life was at its most difficult) the question of whether there is a point at which art should not be allowed to enter life and whether it could actually do any damage — a fertile, not often explored terrain that brings together intellectual rigor and highly emotional stakes. 

As more and more scenes start to take place outside of the classroom, Guerin introduces a reflections-in-glass motif that helps to visually suggest some of the film’s ideas about doubles, transparency and the impossibility to attain perfection. It’s a straightforward but elegant solution for a film that was shot with looks like a two-man crew, consisting of Guerin and soundwoman Amanda Villavieja, on what must have been an almost non-existent budget (the final footage quality is mediocre-to-good rather than outstanding).

Production company: Los Films de Orfeo

Cast: Raffaele Pinto, Emanuela Forgetta, Rosa Delor Muns, Mireia Iniesta, Patricia Gil, Carolina Llacher, Juan Rubino, Giulia Fedrigo, Giovanni Masia, Gavino Arca

Writer-Director: José Luis Guerin

Producer: José Luis Guerin

Director of photography: José Luis Guerin

Editor: José Luis Guerin

Sales: Perspective Films


No rating, 92 minutes