The White Forest (1964)

It is very cold. I know it. I see it in the others. The ice would enter my bones if I let it pass through – that is, if I’d get distracted. But I have too much to do. Not that I have specific things to do. As a matter of fact, I am doing absolutely nothing – that is, whoever looks at me certainly thinks this. But it is not true. I am observing the forest, which, little by little, is becoming white. I also have other minor practical tasks, such as to ascertain that every job is done properly, to indicate the points of the underbrush and the still – green tops of the pines to the painters – they know that I do not want dark spots, but one always escapes notice. Painting a bush is simple; but the top of a forty-meter-tall pinion pine which looks, from the ground, like a small patch of green, becomes, for the painter who sees it from the ladder pushed far up in the tree, a tangle of branches that you cannot finish whitewashing. The man leans out as much as he can on the ladder, which twists frighteningly, and I hold my breath because that man is in danger for me, and even though it may appear so, I am not insensitive to these things.

But beyond these simple tasks there is another one that occupies me completely, and it is watching the forest change color. In the dark, or better, in the artificial light, I am trying to understand what these white – or rather dirty, gray-trees will be like tomorrow, against the gray sky (a layer of clouds has covered it for a week), near the cement of the factory, near its towers. Since for now, as it stands, this question can­ not have anything but an intuitive answer, I keep asking myself, more and more insistently. To be honest, I began to formulate it just a little while ago. The question was not there when I said that I wanted a white forest, the sentence came out of me spontaneously, suggested by an image that flashed in my mind. I had not even the shadow of a doubt. Not even when, as soon as I said that the forest had to be white, I noticed that they looked at me as though they had just heard this color named for the first time (if white is a color). And immediately they wanted to know why. As if changing the color would have been enough to make them agree with me. As if with red, or blue, or yellow – which are, perhaps for the time being, the three fundamental colors of the chromatic scale – that question would not have had any reason to exist.

I have never liked questions when they are directed at me, because they imply a well-thought-out meaning, and they force one to put oneself at the level of reason, while, instead, when I am working I am at a deeper level. And in this sense, it occurs to me that questions are pure sound, without meaning. Those are the moments in which I most feel myself an animal – that is, they look at me as though I were one, and perhaps I truly am one. This state also has its advantages, I have to admit it, because you are left in peace. But this is not the case tonight. This time, whoever passes by here – attracted by the light, the noise, the white cloud, and I don’t know by what else, because the things that make people curious are never the same for everyone – gets in line with the others, out of curiosity, and asks: Why white?

He also looks at all those workers who are handling an enormous pump mounted on a truck that is producing, as I was saying, a huge white cloud; and there are others who are getting up on very tall ladders that get lost in the dark, or are moving lights and generators or are filling up drums of paint; or they are burning the grass on the lawn (which should not be white, but dark) with hand pumps that throw burning gas, like flame-throwers. It’s a real spectacle, above all because it is seen across the veil of mist produced by the cloud of paint. We are all white, like millers. The passers-by stop, observe, enjoy themselves, and after a while come closer and – with the air of saying OK, I understand, it’s wonderful, marvelous, but I would just like to have one thing explained – they ask: Why white?

It may seem strange that the first time that I happened to stop there while surveying the location where I was going to shoot the film, I immediately formulated many hypotheses on what might have been, shall we say, the poetic meaning of this forest, which at first glance unquestionably excluded every idea of forest. I was trying to understand this, and at the same time to find the angle from which I might frame it.

Most important was the silence, which was completely missing. When I entered it, which I did immediately, the forest did not reveal any of its typical sounds or smells. The forest was forced to accept the sounds and smells of the city, of its outskirts, only slightly muffling them. The forest was surrounded, besieged, by streets: the sound of cars, trucks, and motorcycles, constantly, and even a train, against the background of the drone of machinery mixed with the hiss of vapors; and as for smells, the yellow smoke full of acids that pestered the whole area. Hissing and smoke came from the huge factory (with three thousand workers), built in the middle of an enormous pine forest, of which this actual forest is all that remains, for the moment. The factory works day and night. Once I asked its manager if he could interrupt that smoke, which was disturbing some of my takes, for a few minutes. He answered: “Do you know how much a minute would cost me? One hundred and fifty million lira.”

It is known that Ravenna was surrounded until about twenty years ago by immense pine forests, and that today these pine forests are dying. You can see it with the naked eye: dry, benumbed trees, which are really growing without hope. What I am talking about is the green area closest to the city, which I would cross every day in my wanderings. Little by little, interested as I was in looking at everything that was around the forest, and that, as a matter of fact, the forest was often hiding from me – I didn’t notice it any longer. I let it go by the window of the car, hoping to find the by-now familiar scenery that would come after. In this fashion the forest lost, each day a bit more, its natural characteristics. No, it is not exactly right to say natural; rather, its long-time-gone characteristics­ the characteristics of a forest, of a perfect and unique nature that had, by then, become expendable.

What was natural, now, was for the forest to disappear to make room for a new space to be filled with other shapes, other volumes, other colors. In other words, this forest was disintegrating as an idea; only to become, subsequently, the scenery that one saw from the office of X in the scene numbered as such, the backdrop of the first outdoor scene, and so on. Until it finally took on – and I say finally, because it was the result of a work of clarification – a new aspect, that of a problem, the number one problem of the sequence that I was imagining. In fact, one thing was certain: That green had to be eliminated if I wanted the scenery to acquire something of an original beauty, made up of arid grays, imposing blacks, and even pale pink and yellow spots – distant pipes or signs.

There was also some green, but it was a question of a very thin chimney that cut across the factory horizontally, then rose to a prodigious height, elegant and powerful in its slenderness, higher than almost any tree. And so when the production manager announced to me, some time after, that the following Sunday we would be able to film the scene in front of the forest and asked me what I would need, I was suddenly certain, to the extent one can be certain in this order of things, that the forest should be painted white, a dirty white that, at best, would turn out gray in Technicolor, like the sky of those days, or like the fog, or like the cement.

These similarities in the gray sky, the fog, and the cement (which by the way is made here, close by, in enormous quantities) are similarities of which I am thinking only now, tonight, in an attempt to find at all costs a justification for the mass of work I have unleashed, and to silence the doubts or worries that are assailing me from every side. First doubt: Will the white forest make the type of suggestion I am expecting? Second doubt: Won’t it look like snow? First worry: If we have frost, the paint will go. Second worry: If tomorrow the sun – with one of those jokes that this very mysterious object is used to pulling on us – comes out, all of this work will have been in vain, because from the point where I will put the camera for the long shot of the whole forest, I will be against the light, and the trees, instead of being white, will be dark. Nor can I change my angle, because we only painted one side of the forest. If I had said – I try to think, not without a certain reluctance, almost wishing to cease thinking – if I had said brown, the rotten brown of the winter earth, that is, of the lifeless earth, what effect would I have obtained?

I close my eyes for a moment. Without any emotion whatsoever, I imagine the brown forest. I reopen my eyes. I look at the workers, still half-unfinished; it is three in the morning, they have been working since six o’clock yesterday. I work with them, after all, but mine is a work that makes no impression, as far as effort is concerned. The cold has intensified. The huge pump mounted on the truck has broken, the painters’ work has become exhausting. Manual laborers are becoming necessary. We send a towns­ man to look for some of them, to pull them out of bed. A hand pump, with its forty meters of hose, falls from the top of a ladder. No, it didn’t fall, it was thrown on purpose by the workman who was controlling it. He is a hardy type, but he can’t take it anymore. He comes down to the ground and says: “I want a half-million.” The production inspector turns to the onlookers: “Who has a half-million here to give to this man?” Nobody laughs. The painter leaves, dragging his helper along with him.

And what if others follow him? What if parts of the forest remain unpainted? The anguish of this prospect is enough to erase all of my doubts. Why white or dirty white or gray? Because that is how it is and that is all. If I wanted to I could talk to you about it at length and tell you that nobody cares about the trees of this area, and that the waste of the factories turn up in the marshes and the canals, where the waters are black or yellow, and they aren’t really waters anymore. Ask the fish who have stomachs full of oil.

Among the trees, there is today a canal for the ships to sail. Ravenna is the second port of Italy, did you know that? The myth of the factory conditions everyone’s lives, it strips it of unforeseen events, it strips it of all flesh. Synthetic materials dominate, sooner or later they will end up reducing the trees to nothing more than antiquated objects, like horses. To take for granted the end of the forest; to make something full into something empty; to submit this old reality, by discoloring it, to a new one, a new reality that is just as suggestive –  isn’t this what has been happening here for years, in a flux that never stops?

But I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to explain why. All that I can say – that I must say to my production director, with mourning in my heart, now that it is morning and that a beautiful sun has come out and it is impossible to film – is that I give up on this scene. No white forest in the film. And that is the reason why I write about it.

“Il bosco bianco,” from Il deserto rosso, Carlo di Carlo ed., Bologna: Cappelli, 1964.


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