Signs of communication difficulties begin early in Corin Sworn and Tony Romano’s 2016 film, The Coat, when the thrum of a dysfunctioning outboard motor drowns out the conversation between two fishermen, forcing them to cup their hands to their ears, and resort to a pantomime of signs and exaggerated facial expressions which still fail to convey sense. The engine’s contemporary interruption abruptly contrasts to the mythic quality established in the film’s opening scenes. Here, the lulling sound of the sea and the granular rhythm of the fisherman’s hand movements, sanding down his boat, have an archaic quality, locating the viewer in the reverie of a fable, before the existence of such machines.
These opening dislocations and disruptions between past and present are a characteristic experience in The Coat. Time has an interchangeable, slippery quality, where a past constructed from songs and stories brings an uncanny resonance, and sense of timelessness, to spaces of modern transience: highways, petrol stations, railway stations. Already signified in the figure of the fisherman, the characters who move through these spaces in the film also exist in a diegetic limbo between a tale set in contemporary reality and one evoking historical past.
This temporal duality is one of the ways that the film, which Sworn invited Romano to collaborate on with her, draws together strands of history and fiction to address the contemporary urgency of human migration; seeking to complicate it’s current pejorative associations by the introduction of cultural antecedents of itinerancy taken from classical and renaissance derivation. As Sworn stresses:
‘It seemed that many of the films we saw about migration narrated the experience of human movement as fraught with hardship, motivated by misery and plagued by ill will. It is not to say this is not many peoples experience of migration, it can be many peoples experience of staying put as well, however we felt it narrated human movement as something that happened as an exception, something abnormal and to us this felt a denial of long and various patterns of movement.’
The Coat thus interweaves allusions to contemporary conditions of migration, associated to political urgency, with forms of itinerancy which are chosen rather than imposed, such as those for whom journeying is, or was once, a professional occupation, like the travelling theatre player or fisherman. The film reminds the viewer that human transit is not a new condition. It traces the paths of earlier migrations, which are now only discernible in the cadences of lost dialects and customs and thus, to return to one of the film’s central themes, lost in translation. The film sites these less visible, or acknowledged, modes of human traffic in Italy; a country which resonated with both filmmakers, not only as one of the current European flashpoints for the arrival of refugees from war and famine, but also for more particular, already tangled, identifications and movements. For Sworn, this was as a travelling player herself, in the cultural circuits associated to her art making, where, as the 2015 recipient of the Maxa Mara Art Prize for Women, she moved between her home in Scotland to Rome, Naples, Venice and Reggio Emilia as she conducted research for new work on the Commedia dell’ Arte. The film also enabled her fellow Canadian Romano to explore migratory traces in the villages of Southern Italy, where members of his family have remained during emigrations to Canada in the last century. As one of the historic trajectories running through the film, and manifested in the fictionalised figures of a father and his daughter, Romano’s own familial emigrations echo in those of the Arbereshe people of Calabria and Puglia, the residue of earlier migratory navigations of Italy’s land mass, and descended from Albanians fleeing the encroachment of the Ottoman Empire between the 15th and 18th Centuries.
But, as Sworn’s words above suggest, what is also placed into question in the film is the significance of destination or arrival. The Coat draws attention to travel as a process rather than a resolution, and the journeys that we follow throughout the film circulate around each other, occasionally collide, and also tail off or lose momentum in tangents, interruptions and hiatus. In the temporal and linguistic slippages and collisions characteristic of the film, modern instruments of communication, signified here by the mobile phone, fail the father (Glen) in his quest to reach the Albanian diving coach, retired to the Albereshe village of Falconara Alanese, who will teach his daughter Era diving proficiency. The reason why this training course, which requires such a determined and ultimately futile journey (as we watch Glen’s call vibrate on the phone unanswered next to the napping coach), is never made clear. As one of the many frustrated journeys of the film, it is contrasted to the elemental purity of movement, unbound by gravity, represented by the form of the bird. Images of birds proliferate through The Coat, wheeling above the heads of the protagonists, reminding us with their aerial dexterities of non-human patterns of migration, as well as their farsighted perspectives on earthbound travails. Sworn and Romano further accentuate the contrast between avian ease and human impotence by interposing quotations from the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes’s play The Birds, where the birds make a mocking address to human failing, urging them to join them in the air.
The filmmakers were struck by the contemporary significance of the play, where the bird’s ability of unimpeded movement and oversight provides an ultimate power, not afforded to human migrants, but available to those with access to the tools of technological surveillance, where drones and satellites assume bird like powers to map human movement. Sworn also stresses the allegorical force of Aristophanes’ play, in which, subject to its own corruptions, the kingdom of the birds does not deliver its promise of freedom. As she observes:
‘I think this power dynamic of promise and enticement at the same time as a foreclosing of any obligation toward the dispossessed runs through the film in the way the bodies are left to chance and the landscape.’
As one of the foremost proponents of what literary theory has come to call the ‘Old Comedy’ of the ancient world, Aristophanes’s plays often involved, according to Charles Platter, ‘realistic social or political problems that are solved by means of fantastic stratagems,’ where creatures provide a choral commentary on human error in plays such as The Birds, or embody alternative worlds in the ‘animal like humans’ which figure in Wasps and ‘the fully theriomorphic’ characters in Frogs. As Platter maintains, there is a subversive critique of political hierarchies inherent to Aristophanes’s use of non human voices. He notes how the status quo is undermined by the poet’s stylistic shift from: ‘elevated lyric passages to scatological and sexual license’. Platter relates this comedic grounding of the poetic in the base and vernacular to the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s theories of ‘carnival culture,’ where ‘”Carnival brings together, unifies, weds, and combines the sacred and the profane, the lofty with the low, the great with the insignificant, the wise with the stupid.”’
Aristophanes’ early form of the carnivalesque finds a further echo in the other narrative strand that runs through The Coat. It follows the journey of two actors as they drive their van of props and costumes across the small roads of Calabria, to a performance in Roggiano Grevina, also the destination, and thus a point of narrative convergence, for Glen and Eros’s journey on foot. By giving the actors the names Dotore and Il Pantaleo, overt reference is made to the similar nomenclature of two recurring characters, Dottore and Pantalone, familiar from the archaic Italian theatre form, the Commedia dell’ Arte, which flourished as a popular travelling theatre in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance period. But there is an influence here, with its emphasis on the vernacular, which reaches further into the forms of modern theatre. Robert Henke perceives the basis of Commedia dell’ Arte’s popularity, and influence on later theatrical forms, as resulting from its ‘structural tension between the linear, well constructed plot based on a literary model and the centrifugal improvisations of the stand-up performer.’
As a spectacle where street theatre acts, oral storytelling and more formally scripted performance intermingled, commedia dell’arte performances could thus be seen to embody the intertextuality ascribed to Bahktin’s carnival culture. But, looking beyond Commedia dell’ Arte’s on-stage performances, Sworn was also interested in how the itinerate and precarious lives of its actors resonated with current labour instabilities. As she notes:
‘For one, these actors spectacularised flexibility in precarious times. Partly, through their performances of extreme physical feats on stage (spectacles of flexibility made flesh) but also because the multiple roles they played on stage frequently paralleled the multiple by-employments they performed off stage. The taking up of multiple jobs to get by struck me as very contemporary as did the fascination with the flexible self, today consistently upheld as an ideal for managing contemporary working conditions.’
Therefore, rather than the play they are to produce, The Coat is more concerned with the actors in their off stage roles, presenting them in the act of assembling the illusion rather than the act itself. Their script might thus be considered what occurs on the way to the performance, such as the philosophical reflections they share in the car, and their encounters along the road, as they cross paths with Glen and Era, who stowaway amongst their boxes of props, or collect Il Dottore’s nephew Jake. The latter’s Canadian accent and inability to speak Italian, functions as a disruptive modern presence amongst characters who could be seen, according to Sworn, to ‘face forwards and backwards.’ As the film follows the protagonists’s journeys across a pastoral landscape little marked by contemporary life, temporal co-ordinates become porous, and it is indeed possible for Dottore, Pantaleo, Glen and Era to embody itinerates of earlier ages, mapping spectral paths that resonate with the urgencies of current migrations.
It could also be argued that the viewer’s fluid navigation of these diegetic and temporal overlaps is indebted to the well used framing device of the journey as a strategy for interweaving multiple storylines in literature, cinema and theatre. Contemporary to Commedia dell Arte, and drawing on the carnivalesque legacy of Aristophanes, the stories of the travelling pilgrims of The Canterbury Tales, for example, enabled Geoffrey Chaucer to reflect the social realities of class and inequality through comedic caricature. Like the travelling players of Shakespeare, or the stories recounted by the characters in Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, these fictional forebears exert a palimpsestic presence within the narrative of itinerancy explored in Sworn and Romano’s film. The political dimension intrinsic to these texts, which elevates vernacular dialect over the official tongue, the figure of the humble and overlooked – whether human or animal – over the powerful, and uses stories both comedic and fantastical as its tool of subversion, can also be strongly felt in the way The Coat draws out tales of the forgotten or overlooked, folding historical realities into fictional tales of divers and actors on the road.
One cinematic touchstone in this regard might be considered the writer and filmmaker Piero Paolo Pasolini, who followed ‘the rule of analogy’ where, as he explained, in relation to his 1965 film The Gospel According to St Matthew, ‘… I didn’t reconstruct characters but tried to find individuals who were analogous…The chorus of background characters I chose from the faces of the peasants of Lucania and Puglia and Calabria.’ Finding echoes of the archaic (here ancient Palestine) in the Southern Italian setting and its people, which he returned to throughout his work, was part of what Sam Rohdie observed in Pasolini as an ‘insinuation of the past into the present’ which was bought into a more intense and mythic register in his later Trilogy of Life, which adapted The Canterbury Tales (1972), The Decameron (1971) and the Arabian Nights (1974) for the screen. Common to all his films, as Rohdie argues, was the way he seized: ‘on certain realities and transformed them into myth, that is into poetry, the poor, the rural, the Third World, the prehistoric.’ A similar process is at work in The Coat, as it is in the carnivalesque works of theatre and fiction which proceed it. In language, dress, mannerism, The Coat’s protagonists bridge past and present, explicitly drawing upon other cultural and historical voices, to effect what Rohdie defines in Pasolini as ‘a metalinguistic masquerade,’ simultaneously a ‘citation and a creation’ of the language of an analogous other, to create films which were ‘discursive and linguistic, films composed of framed reality fragments’.
How to perform the discursive is an enquiry at the heart of Sworn’s art practice: found in performances, such as those forming part of Performing Selves, during her ARC fellowship in Leeds, to sculptural installations which continue to probe the theatrical legacy of early travelling theatre. The Coat forms part of this research, using the overarching figure of the traveller, and the momentum of a journey, to draw together, and then pull apart, diverse strands of historic, mythic and contemporary storylines on the subject of human movement. Constructed like a map of interconnected yet divergent tracks, Sworn and Romano’s loosely bound set of parallel journeys resists an overall causal coherence, seeking to open up in the gaps between, other possible paths of enquiry for the viewer: taking fictional flight at the same time that they address political realities. Articulating the concept of cinema as poetry, Pasolini also defended the value of this free wheeling, yet no less rigorous approach to narrative form: ‘It isn’t true that there isn’t a story; there is a story, but instead of being narrated in its integrality, it is narrated elliptically, with spurts of imagination, fantasy, allusion.’
Lucy Reynolds is an artist and Senior Lecturer at University of Westminster