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  • Good Morning, Babylon:The Cathedral Is a Movie
  • Alessandro Melis (bio)
    Translated by Robert Swenson and Diane Lewis

Cinema, in its early days, was an updated version of the great medieval cathedrals.

This simple but striking proposition underlies Good Morning, Babylon (Paolo Taviani & Vittorio Taviani, IT/FR/US, 1987) a meta-cinematographic work written and directed by the Taviani brothers, Paolo and Vittorio, in 1987.

Each frame of their film functions as if it helps raise the courses of stone of an imaginary Romanesque facade, a collective project by workers at the service of a master builder, the director D. W. Griffith.

In the sequence in which the "restorers" admire the true facade of the Cathedral of Miracles, the one-to-one relationship that links the frame to the "architectural cut" is explicit: a single image condenses the climax of the film and the sense of the story before and after that caesura, exactly as a geometric section in architecture does.

Bonanno, the master of the works, who bears the name of the mythical, uncertain builder of the Leaning Tower, is seated like a film director surrounded by his assistants. He observes the set while talking to the Tavianis' camera and says, "I am sure that those who built it looked at it afterwards from here, right here where I'm sitting. They were brilliant. It's a miracle."

The implication is that those restorers, by culture and sense of belonging, are the descendants of the builders of old: "I toast you, Church of the Miracles. And I toast the grandfathers of our grandfathers, who built it a thousand years ago, and who handed down to us this craft carried out with the hands and the imagination."

After the "cut," the two youngest Bonannos, Andrea (Joaquim de Almeida) and Nicola (Vincent Spano), brothers who grew up in Pisa as the Tavianis did, [End Page 82] export their father's art to Los Angeles and contribute to the creation of the immense sets of Intolerance (D. W. Griffith, US, 1916).

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Figure 1.

Frame from Good Morning, Babylon, Paolo Taviani & Vittorio Taviani. The facade of the Cathedral of Pisa.

It is the character of Griffith himself who closes the spatial and temporal circle around the "cut" in a famous scene. He calls out to himself something which connects the heroic phase of the American cinema to the phenomenal "media" heritage of the great European cathedrals: "I do not know whether our work, that of your sons and mine, is as beautiful as that of those who constructed the marvelous Romanesque cathedrals. Those and that work, were born as these are born today—from a shared collective dream. I am convinced that your sons, Bonanno, are like those obscure stonecutters who carved their masterpieces on the cathedrals that you honor, that have contributed to render famous the work of art and have helped the generations that followed them to believe in and live a better life. And for this reason I profoundly love the cinema. And I respect it, Bonanno."

Bonanno and his precursors, Griffith and the Taviani, are like a game of mirrors; they interpret their role as the "constructor of dreams" inside and outside the film and in a different arc of time.

Within this conceptual axis more intimate themes are untangled, including [End Page 83] the drama of the final separation at the dramatic epilogue of the First World War and the frustration with the poverty and migration of the early decades of the twentieth century. The Bonannos pray for work. But Mr. Grass, Griffith's production manager, responds negatively and turns them down, dismissing Italians as a collection of liars, braggarts, weasels and slackers.

"Who are you compared to the descendants of Michelangelo and Leonardo?" This rhetorical question provokes the proud reaction of Americans from this part of old Europe, their Italy of that time, which is aware that they are bereft of its economic leadership but strenuously attached to the last bastion of its history.

However, the generic exaltation of Florentine art above that of the craftsmen of the Middle Ages weakens the narrative metaphor, not only for the risk of...


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pp. 82-84
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