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"Bianca" by Nanni Moretti

Updated: Oct 10, 2022

- A psychoanalytic interpretation -

The following commentary regarding the film "Bianca" is centered on a pillar of psychoanalytic theory, such as the primitive fantasy known as "Primal Scene" and its developments, brought forward by M. Klein's contributions. The "Primal Scene" ("Urszene" in German) has been one of the cornerstones of psychoanalysis since 1914, when S. Freud undertook the analysis of the famous case of "The Wolf-Man" ("History of an Infantile Neurosis"). The Laplanche-Pontalis dictionary defines it as a fantasy that children have regarding sexual intercourse between parents. This fantasized scene was observed or assumed by the child and is generally interpreted as an act of violence perpetrated by the father. Further elaborations and extensions of the "Primal Scene" has been carried out by numerous post-Freudian authors, among whom the name of M. Klein stands out. This author considered that the "Primal Scene" normally forms part of the early stages of the Oedipus complex, during which it takes place through part-objects, i.e. the maternal breast containing the father’s penis. Following K. Abraham's insights, this archaic relationship of a couple carried out through part-objects was defined as "Combined Figure" by M. Klein. In “The Child Analysis” she posed that the Primal Scene or fantasies about it can lead to different outcomes, such as artistic, intellectual or neurotic fixation. An important point in this determination is which of the senses were the most excited, whether it be the sense of sight or the sense of hearing.

"Bianca" tells the story of Michele Apicella, a young math professor who settles into his new home in Rome. He lives a solitary lifestyle, which developed into obsession and devotion, where he observes the behavior of his neighbors and has intrusive involvement in the lives of his friends. The director Nanni Moretti stated that his film is "an attempt at a love story". Despite the genre hinting at comedy or thriller, this film arouses a sense of deep sorrow in the viewer, therefore resulting in a broken attempt of a love story.

From a psychoanalytic perspective, the entire film revolves around Apicella's failure to organize his mind around a fertile "Primal Scene," that is, an unconscious phantasy constituted by his parent's united in harmonious intercourse. It is obviously necessary to separate Moretti's creative mind from his character's personality. Apicella's misadventures and idiosyncrasies must be regarded as a pathological part of Moretti's self, which the director was able to connect with and creatively portray in the vicissitudes of the film's protagonist. Moretti's passion for cinema must be distinguished from his own repression of scopophilia. The "excitation of his sense of sight" underwent sublimation, through which he successfully worked through his own fixation of the Oedipal phantasies of the "Primal Scene" in a creative manner. Since Apicella is Moretti's mother's family name, the film can be regarded as a "child" procreated in the director's mind, through the union of its masculine and feminine aspects. Moretti through Apicella gave birth to their "film-daughter" Bianca.

A fiery purity

The film begins with the protagonist Apicella dousing and setting fire to the bathroom with alcohol in order to sanitize and sterilize his new home. The transition from entering his home, which symbolizes the maternal body, to burning and disinfecting the bathroom fixtures is a key passage for understanding the meaning of the film. In "The Psychogenesis of Manic-depressive States", M.Klein recounts the clinical case of "patient C," a little boy suffering from obsessive symptoms and states of intense anxiety. She traces the cause of her young patient's symptoms by analyzing one of his dreams, which illustrates phantasies clearly connected to a sadistic primal scene. In this dream, patient C's mother was portrayed as being the container of the burning paternal penis and the dying children. This was represented by an oven with a frying pan in which something brown, probably a kidney, was frying. Likewise, the association of images of the first sequences of "Bianca", directly leads the viewer to observe sadistic parental intercourse, expressed through the image of the burning bathroom to which Apicella sets fire. The fantasized sex takes place at the part-object level, through the bottle of alcohol that ignites the oral, anal and genital erogenous zones, for which the washbasin, bidet and toilet respectively stand for. The initial sequence of "sterilization" in the bathroom is associated with the following scene, where the protagonist finds a dead bird on the terrace of his new home. The finding of this dead animal can have different psychoanalytic meanings. Firstly, following the thread that starts from the interpretation of the parental sadistic intercourse, it can be regarded as the unconscious phantasy of a dead (burnt) sibling, its death being the consequence of the sadistic act carried out by the parents. Secondly, the dead bird may also stand for the father's penis, which would have been burned during the blazing sexual intercourse.

M. Klein continued her patient's analysis by claiming that, through the mechanism of internalization, the burning penis and the dying children end up affecting her patient's body-mind experience, which accounted for his symptoms and anxiety. She wrote: "...through the internalization of his parents all the anxiety-situations [...] became internalized and thus multiplied, intensified, and partly altered in character. His mother containing the burning penis and the dying children (the oven with frying pan) is inside him..." From this viewpoint, as Delia Torres Aryan suggested (personal communication), the flaming bathroom can also be traced, through internalization, to a massive arousal of the different erogenous zones in the protagonist's own body. This arousal would illustrate a "perverse polymorphism" in the Freudian sense, which implies that objectless and genitally unchanneled excitation leads to "fiery and pure" infertility. In this regard, a third perspective considers the image of the dead bird symbolic of a "dead child", due to the arousal of the erogenous zones per se. This image is in turn linked to the sentence that ends the film and summarizes its main topic: "it is sad to die childless".

Apicella's obsessive and manic defenses.

Adult sexuality is possible when our "inner parents" are in a creative and harmonious relationship and a primal loving scene has been introjected into our mind. This introjection is not the reproduction of what was actually experienced by a child: a boy or a girl may have two parents who intensely love each other and because of the child's jealousy resulting in hatred he/she imagines his/her parents' sexuality as harmful. In this case one incorporates a harmful primal scene and cannot have access to adult sexuality until the parents are reconciled as unconscious objects in his/her internal world.

We know that obsessive people tend to control their family members just as they control their anal sphincter. The family members can neither move, speak, or do anything different from what the obsessive person wants them to do. It is a tyrannical control over the objects similar to the one we see in this film being exerted by Michele Apicella over his friends and neighbors. They are catalogued in a filing cabinet and aren't left free to meet with other sexual partners or end their relationships. Apicella would like them to be like puppets acting out the script of his mental primal scene. The focus that is carried out by obessive people in regard to hygiene, non-contamination, and to keep objects and people separated has two main purposes. On the one hand, the union of the parents constitutes a sense of tormenting jealousy from the perspective of the obsessive person due to the unconscious phantasy of their parents' intercourse. On the other hand, the control being exerted by an obsessive person over his or her parents is brought about by attempting to prevent them from reaching the point of sadism. However, we notice at this point a fundamental difference between the theory of obsessive disorders and the plot of the film. Apicella does not want to keep his friends apart; on the contrary, Moretti's genius ploy consists in having described his character as compulsively intent on keeping his friends together, albeit in a pure and idealized relationship. This ideal, unrealistic and doomed attempt deserves further explanation from a psychoanalytic perspective.

According to M. Klein, the anxiety-situation stirred up by the phantasy of internalized parents in destructive sexual intercourse is of crucial importance in the onset of manic-depressive states. She described the ego that outlines two defenses, namely the paranoid and the manic, that portay the manner in which to escape the anxieties of the "depressive position." Klein adds that manic defenses operate in close connection with obsessive defenses because the ego fears that the reparation carried out by obsessive mechanisms has failed and therefore resorts to mania. As L. M. Minuchín thoroughly summarized in his book "Consideraciones teóricas y clínicas en el psicoanálisis", the mechanism of "reparation" is the subject's attitude towards the perception of the damage done to the object. It occurs when guilt predominates in the "depressive position." The notion of elaboration is linked to the reparation carried out through creativity, where libidinal impulses predominate over destructive ones. In the creative act, the artist acts on the matter in the external world, thus transforming an operative fantasy in his inner world into an artistic creation, which symbolizes the damaged and repaired object. On the contrary, resorting to manic defenses implies that the ego recurs to omnipotence with the purpose of controlling and dominating the introjected objects. By doing so, the subject denies the fear that is being felt rather than working through it. In other words, through omnipotent control the maniac prevents his/her internalized parents from being a threat to each other. In this sense, all of Apicella's "manic-reparatory" attempts to reunify his friends are aimed at restoring harmony in the couples and eliminating any kind of hatred, conflict and animosity between them. Even when his friends reconcile, Apicella is not satisfied, because as he says in a scene of the film, when "they get back together [...] it is too late, as they are now hurt and evil." According to M. Klein, an important difference between obsessional neurosis and mania is that in the former the mastery of the internalized parents signifies a "forcible separation of two (or more) objects; whereas, where mania was in the ascendant, the patient had recourse to methods more violent...That is to say, the objects were killed." Consequently, Apicella devotes himself entirely to his efforts of keeping the couples around him in harmonious relationships. When they don't conform to his idealizations, he resorts to violently assassinating his acquaintances and friends. In this way, he keeps his parents alive and comfortable in his unconscious phantasies.

Similar to the model already used by A. Hitchcock in his famous film "Rear Window," Moretti makes the terrace of Apicella's home a privileged place from which his character pries on the lives of the people around him. Each window that opens in Apicella's backyard is like a screen onto which he projects his unconscious phantasies, similarly to the way the London director used the window from which James Stewart spied on his neighbors. The phantasies of Moretti's main character are featured by a contrast between persecutory aspects of his self in relation to a sadistic primal scene and the defense of the sadistic primal scene through manic reparation. Accordingly, along with the film's protagonist, the viewer is able to view couples who lie, quarrel, and cheat on each other. However, through Apicella's eyes the spectator also looks into the life of an “ideal happy family.” Following Klein's ideas, R. Fairbairn has brilliantly pointed out that "a very deep split between the two aspects of the object indicates that it is not the good and bad object that are being kept apart but an idealized and an extremely bad one. So deep and sharp a division reveals that destructive impulses, envy, and persecutory anxiety are very strong and that idealization serves mainly as a defence against these emotions."

Apicella's attitude of omnipotence, triumph and contempt for his friends, confirms that the "manic reparation" is the main mechanism deployed by him to counteract the anxieties of the depressive position. His contempt is evident toward his friends who are separating, and his neighbor Siro Siri who "sleeps with girls 40 years younger than him." Even the "clownish" school principal and the teachers are not spared by Apicella's moral criticism. They work at the "Marylin Monroe" school, which is featured as an amusement arcade and explicitly suggests the shallow values and models that will be passed on to the students. In contrast, from the height of his superiority, Apicella triumphs over the people around him by foreseeing their life and death. Everything that he portrays responds to a cold mathematical logic that does not take into account the emotions of the people concerned.

A separate discussion involves Edo, one of the school's staff members who represents an alter-ego of Apicella's pathological side, that is, the embodiment of pure abstraction of mathematics in its highest and most perfect form. The school principal says: "Edo does a little bit of everything, although everything he does is beautiful but useless. Kind of like pure mathematics, maybe not useful but sublime". Edo's mathematical mannerisms can be compared to Apicella's approach of keeping his friends in the idealistic conditions that he created for them. The foundation of this idea is noble and intellectual but for that very reason unattainable, unrealistic and therefore ineffective. The main problem the young math teacher is confronted with and cannot solve is how "Dürer's Magic Square" can chase away melancholy. In other words, how pure logic can overcome his own deep existential sadness. The problem evidently cannot be solved because the question implies the use of mathematical laws to find the solution to an issue belonging to the emotional sphere. People physical and emotional states are not like numbers that can be added or subtracted. One cannot lie on top of a lonely girl who is sunbathing on the beach just because she is alone, as occurs in the film. Unlike mathematics, human relationships are chaotic, unpredictable and dangerous and for this very reason must be ruled out. Among the all-the-same shoes in Apicella's closet, there is no room for the appearance of something new and unexpected.

"Sacred Heart loafers" or "espadrillas"?

Apart from the aforementioned opening sequence of the burning bathroom, the theme of infertility subtly recurs in other images along the film. First, there is a recurring theme referring to barrenness, symbolized by a dry plant that appears in some key scenes. One example is the mostly silent and emotionally distant first dinner between Apicella and Bianca. The almost dry plant showcased in Apicella's home, represents Apicella's impossibility of emotional growth, since he is stuck in his Oedipal phantasy's compulsive voyeurism. In a now-classic scene, he wonders whether one of his withered plants needs more or less water, or more or less sun. His reaction, which leads him to knock over a flowerpot, is an expression of anger about not being able to understand a contradictory part of himself that "doesn't speak" to him. M. Klein posed that "the persecutions and demands of bad internalized objects; the attacks of such objects upon one another (especially that represented by the sadistic coitus of the parents) [...] all these factors combine to produce in the ego a sense of being a prey to contradictory and impossible claims from within, a condition which is felt as a bad conscience... "

The elements that foster and facilitate procreation and growth can be seen as a couple of progenitors, which embody the sun as a masculine element and the water as a feminine element. I remember a clinical case that was recounted by one of my teachers during a class at the "Buenos Aires Psychoanalytical Association." This patient, a young girl whose parents were about to divorce, suffered from a serious physical sickness and death anxiety. During a session she once told my teacher that in order to continue living, one needs oxygen and water, just like her fish in the bowl. She drew a little fish with bubbles on top, which meant that to keep living she (and her fish) needed “Mr. Oxygen” and “Mrs. Water”, that is to say, mom and dad. After saying that it is impossible to live without water and oxygen, this girl drew a fish bowl and inside it she added seaweed. Then she said: "without the seaweed life cannot go on". That is to say, she drew the maternal body or the female genital with liquid (the fish bowl) and inside the genital she put seaweed, which symbolized the paternal penis. As D. Meltzer posed, children have the idea that a penis inside the mother has vital functions.

The idea of the right balance, of not too much but not too little, is brilliantly expressed by David Mann in his book "Psychotherapy - an Erotic Relationship". There, the author refers to a "good enough image of the primal scene," which he believes is essential to foster one's creativity. He suggests that in order to create, one needs an identification with the male and female roles of a creative parental relationship, that is, with a fertile penis and a fertile womb. Quoting Shakespeare's King Lear, Mann states that "...the good enough image of the primal scene would be in between an idealized magical intercourse that 'makes the ground move,' or a more denigrated image which perceives the parents' intercourse as [...] 'within a dull, stale, tired bed, Go to the creating a whole tribe of fops, Got ' tween asleep and wake?'". Based on these considerations, it is possible to argue that the primal scene in Apicella's mind is not "good enough," as it oscillates between two opposite polarities. On the one hand, we notice that his unconscious phantasies concern the excesses of a "blazing passionality." On the other, defensive and idealized phantasies "within a dull, stale, tired bed" appear. In these phantasies the very sexual desire of the parents for each other is denied, such as when the opened window shows the life of the "happy family" and the parents seem to exist only for their children's benefit. At night the family plays board games for the children's joy, and in the morning the mother is intent on gently waking them up. It is as if Apicella's ideal of simplicity and strictness of the "Sacred Heart loafers" represented an "immaculate conception" which opposes the "espadrillas'" seductive glimpse of the heel. The primal scene takes place in this shoes' metaphor through the "combined figure" foot/penis and shoe/breast or vagina. Both these extreme unconscious representations of the parental coitus lead to a misconception of their intercourse by either excess or defect and for this very reason form the basis of mental pathology. According to David Mann, the primal scene expresses the degree of a transgression where an individual was able to venture. A transgression constitutes a risk. If a risk is precisely calculated, it allows something new to emerge. In this sense, the "immaculate conception" (the "Sacred Heart loafers" reference) implies a lack of transgression, rigidity, adherence to strict and stern boundaries that don't allow creativity to flow forth. Sexuality, especially among parents, must be denied. It is interesting in this regard to recall the scene in which Apicella lowers Bianca's skirt to cover her legs through a gesture that shows a defense against his sexual desire. On the other hand, "espadrillas" worn sloppily are emblematic of rough and unrefined seduction and anarchic disorder that could imply a dangerous sexuality will take place. "Espadrillas" imply "a sense of dirtiness, brazenness but how much it aroused me", Apicella states.

The internalized parents in destructive sexual intercourse, as well as the self, are felt to be in constant danger of violent destruction. However, by controlling his parents, the manic person imagines he will prevent them from being a threat to one another and from injuring him/herself.

"Bianca" (name that means "white" in English) is the hypothetical ideal of purity and perfection that Apicella thinks he has found when they first meet. Her very name refers to the whiteness of that which is pristine, devoid of "stains." The protagonist "chooses" her for her way of walking and her "simple" shoes. The first dialogues with her are interspersed with the only glimpse of the school garden. 'Nature' in this context represents the internal good mother with whom Apicella re-engages for a moment after meeting with Bianca. Everything initially seems to be clear and sharp, with firm outlines. At dinner, Apicella feeds her a Sacher-Torte cake that we know symbolizes harmony and balance. Sacher-Torte cake is not like Mont Blanc cake in which there may be an imbalance between chestnuts and cream, which by themselves do not make sense. Nevertheless, the attempted romance that Apicella tries to pursue with her ends in failure because of the imperfection inherent in any human relationship.

When Bianca breaks up with her previous partner Pioggia, things get complicated. As his friend Ignazio tells Apicella, "no one can belong to another absolutely." Only in mathematics is it possible to predict a result and to know what elements can be together without trying. The scene, where Apicella refuses to taste the ice cream's flavors that Bianca has brought him, is already an omen of his ultimate resignation. Without having to taste the "combination" of their behaviors, moods, passions and emotions, he aprioristically predicts that they cannot coexist.

The last part of the film shows the unfolding of Apicella's "paranoid defenses," which begin to show themselves in the sentence said by him to a student at the blackboard: "you have no mercy on me." This episode is followed by the football match scene in which the theme of sadistic intercourse recurs. The destroyed goal post at which the ball is thrown and the field symbolize the mother's body. The situation quickly escalates and the sequence of the scuffle with the students and the protest of the school principal follow. Apicella's intense feelings of guilt and depressive anxieties drive him to the idea of suicide, from which he escapes by confessing his crimes.

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