Disobedience & The 400 Blows: A Comparison in Male Adolescent Rebellion Posted on 28 Nov 12:33

The crushing revelations of adolescence are perhaps hardest for boys. The elucidation of this fact is best captured by Alberto Moravia’s 1948 novella Disobedience and François Truffaut’s 1959 film The 400 Blows. It is no coincidence that the release of these works occurred so closely together. The post-WWII era was a period that exemplified forcing young men to fall in line in a capacity beyond soldierdom. The crushing pressure to grow into a “respectable” person by attending school, finding a well-paying job and marrying a “nice girl” proved too much for some, like Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) in The 400 Blows and Luca in Disobedience.

For both characters, the revelation of harboring a distinct hatred for authority begins with their parents, figures they once deemed the source of all good, but now view as the sole reason for their oppression. This ire then bifurcates toward school, and the teachers who, as Doinel notes, “teach lots of useless things like algebra and science.”

In Luca’s case, the contempt for his parents, who he once held in such high esteem until reaching adolescence, manifests itself in rebellion against everything that represents life, and the conventions and motions attached to it. At first, this process of renunciation–of possessions, pleasures, etc.–causes a distinct split within Luca as the narrator remarks, “He was truly furious with himself, just as though–he could not help thinking–he were divided into two parts, one of which lay, abandoned and wretched, on the ground, feebly defending itself, while the other stood over it, striking it without mercy.”

Eventually, Luca finds the persistence in his hatred to shirk all scholarly responsibilities, still attending, but not performing. He also disavows his most valuable worldly items, including his stamp collection, books and sporting goods. In order to sell his library under the nose of his parents, he lies and tells them he wants to make a profit off them at the used bookstore and then pool his savings to have enough for a new record player and some records. Like his counterpart, distorting the truth is essential to self-preservation, or rather, self-decimation. Doinel states of lying to his parents, “I lie from time to time. Sometimes because if I told the truth they wouldn’t believe me.” When you’re “just a boy,” it seems, no one wants to think anything but the worst of you anyway.

With the money he makes, Luca takes another drastic stand against authority by burying the loot in a park near the area where they feed the lions. As he watches, he thinks about how satisfying it would be to become a sacrifice to the beasts, serving a greater purpose in this than any he could in going on living. After all, “To die, it sometimes occurred to him, was perhaps the one true pleasure life reserved for mankind.”

The final step in his procedure of clandestine disobedience is to stop eating. He consumes just enough for basic energy, nothing decadent, not even his favorite–cake. This form of abdication from the existence laid out before him by his parents, teachers and other caretakers is, he believes, the final nail in his coffin. “It seemed, then, that there were rules for death as there were for life. If living meant being enthusiastic about one’s lessons, loving one’s parents, saving up money, becoming attached to objects, eating, it followed that dying must mean not eating, ridding oneself of all affection both for things and for people, and, above all, sleeping.” Doinel, too, takes on this form of approach to a dissent that others might view as a type of death. Ultimately, his so-called laziness, cheating and thievery is what lands him in a psychologically-oriented observation center for youths.

Just when Luca thinks he’s got his defiance finely tuned, he becomes infatuated with a governess who comes to live in his house with three of his cousins while their mother recuperates from an illness. Even though she’s homely and much older, Luca is incredibly desirous of her, and hates himself for being so. Alas, the burning loins of puberty are hard to ignore for him, which the governess immediately capitalizes on by inviting him to her home after she pursues him during her own version of hide and seek. Battling the struggle within himself to resist or succumb, Luca finally ends up going to her two weeks after her invitation only to find that she is on her deathbed. It is then that his certainty in violently disobeying the norms of life are further confirmed. “And so, he could not help thinking, this was what it meant to live, to go on living–doing, with passion and determination, absurd, senseless things for which it was impossible to find any justification and which continually placed the person who did them in a state of slavery, of remorse, of hypocrisy.”

With this harrowing experience avoided and a lesson fully apprehended, Luca continues going about his means of insurgency, falling ill during a recitation of Dante in his class that leads to him being in a state of delirium for months while on bedrest. When his hallucinations have finished with him, he awakens to find an aged nurse watching over him. She insists, “You’ll get well if you’re obedient and do all the things you ought to do.”

Just as the governess, however, her designs on him are impure, a suspicion made evident by the lecherous manner in which she washes him after he becomes conscious for the first time. Still, when she devirginizes him, Luca can’t help but feel a certain gratitude. “The nurse had given him a second birth when, in his desire for death, he had been already dead. But he knew that his second birth could never have taken place if he had not first desired, so sincerely, so whole-heartedly, to die.” This is also the case with Doinel, who experiences a sort of death when he goes through the catharsis of being imprisoned by the sea and tells his tale of woe to the psychologist before breaking free and at last making it to the shore, where he so long dreamed of going, thereby invigorating within him a renewed sense of gusto for life–even if it does mean existing within the limiting confines of obedience.

Ultimately “He [Luca and Doinel] saw that this was his life; and that now it only remained to him to be patient and live it out to the end.” But it takes a lot of painful hostility and insubordination for an adolescent boy to reach this conclusion.


The Woman of Rome: A Love Letter to the Oldest Profession Posted on 20 Sep 12:06

Among the many Italian authors billed as literary powerhouses, there is still, perhaps, no one who can hold a candle to Alberto Moravia. His most epic work,The Woman of Rome, is all the proof one needs of this. Released in 1949, the political undertones that become more prominent as the novel progresses cover the then recent past, a wartime era that tore the nation apart as a result of fascism.

But before this element comes into play, there is, of course, Adriana, our anti-heroine. Initially innocent, Adriana reflects on her past with a sentimental sort of resignation, starting from the age of sixteen. Remarking on how it was her mother who directed her to model nude for a painter (and also alludes to her mother posing for him–and maybe more), she insists that her only dream was to get married and have a family, rather than trade on her good looks as her mother so often wished she would. Indeed, Adriana’s naive way of describing how “Mother immediately began to talk of when she had been known all over Rome as one of the handsomest models and the harm she had done herself by marrying and giving up her career” is indicative of just how virtuous she was before surrendering to her ultimate profession.

Naturally, taking off her clothes every day for money was bound to lead to a certain awareness of her body. After noticing the desire she arouses in the artists’ friends, Adriana realizes, “These glances, as well as Mother’s veiled allusions, roused my sense of coquetry and made me conscious both of my beauty and of the advantages I might draw from it.” And yet, she is determined to maintain her purity, surrendering only to the man who she loves, which turns out, to her mother’s dismay to be a lowly chauffeur named Gino. Reflecting on her first impressions of Gino, the man she was so determined to marry, Moravia as Adriana employs the distinct technique of foreshadowing for the reader her slow and dramatic downfall from respectable, modest woman to prostitute.

Her first experience with the trade occurs as a result of her so-called friend, Gisella, a fellow model who also uses her body for higher-paying work. She insists that Adriana accompany her on a jaunt to Viterbo with her and her “fiancé,” Riccardo, so that she can be an escort to their friend, Stefano Astarita. Still innocent with regard to her instant trust of people, Adriana agrees to go along, not yet cognizant that Astarita is going to have his way with her whether she wants to or not. When it’s over, he is more obsessed with her than ever, and pays her accordingly. And yet, it is not this moment that prompts her to embrace the profession, but rather, Astarita’s (who is a member of the Secret Police in Mussolini’s fascist regime) unwanted information about Gino being a married man with a daughter. Henceforth, Adriana succumbs to the ease of becoming a whore, waking up late, taking her coffee in bed and making her own schedule. She will no longer bother with the effort at being good or noble, eking by on her meager earnings while her mother sews shirts to the point of blindness.

Adriana likens herself to a doll who is broken inside but goes on looking the same externally, musing, “I compared myself with a doll I had had when I was little–after I had beaten her and dragged her about all day long, I felt a kind of lump inside her, a sinister creaking, although her face was still as rosy and smiling as ever.” It is with this dulling of her dreams that she goes on living, even continuing to have sex with Gino in spite of what she knows about him. As the chauffeur for a wealthy family, he takes Adriana to the villa he works at whenever the family is away. In her haze of not caring about morality anymore, Adriana decides to steal a valuable gold-plated compact with a ruby at the center from the bedroom. She does it not so much because she likes it, but merely to do it–to prove to herself that nothing she does matters anymore.

The consequence of her action, however, ultimately leads to her encounter with Sonzogno, a cold-blooded killer who Gino enlists to sell the compact for money after Adriana gives it back to him. But before Sonzogno gives her too much trouble, Adriana falls in love with a politically-minded student two years younger than her, Giacomo. His apathy toward her only makes her more enamored of him, wanting so desperately to do and say the things that will trigger his ardor in equity. But Giacomo’s only concern, it seems, is rebelling against the government. Adriana can’t help but find the irony in love’s discrepancies, with Astarita passionate about her, though she cares not at all for him, while she’s devoted to Giacomo, who barely gives her any crumbs of emotion.

Like most tales of a golden-hearted prostitute, Adriana’s yields tragic results, but not without a somewhat cushioning outcome. In the end, Moravia has written a love letter to the oldest profession, a thankless one, but an important one nonetheless.