Song of Myself is probably one of the most nauseatingly oft-quoted poems, which is a shame because Walt Whitman is not just a poet but a spirit.
Anyway, let me open this by quoting Song of Myself:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
I have this wonderful background in the humanities studying folks like Whitman or Kafka or de Beauvoir. I consider some of the things I like, including plenty of the films I’ve written about for Midwest Film Journal, in the realm of highbrow. I watch Frasier for goodness’s sake!
And now I come to write to you about nuns … and their butts.
Well, not just nuns’ butts, and that’s what makes me feel … contradictory … because I’m writing about The Eroticist, which was released under the very manageable title Nonostante le apparenze … e purchè la nazione non lo sappia … all’onorevole piacciono le donne (literally: Despite Appearances … and Provided the Nation Doesn’t Know … the Senator Likes Women).
It’s a movie about a politician’s compulsion to grab the derrière of anyone remotely female. It’s no wonder the movie makes me feel like a bad feminist — albeit in the Roxane Gay sort of way where we realize that sometimes we consume media antithetical to issues of deep importance to us. In a #MeToo world, as a member of a generation watching the impeachment of a sitting U.S. President (no, the other one), it’s very natural to cringe at anything that smacks of an abuse of power, especially those along gender lines.
Luckily, The Eroticist is damn good fun and has aged better than one might think.
The story centers on Senator Giacinto “Gianni” Puppis whose last name — delightfully pronounced poopies — is the primary reason this movie lives rent-free in my head. Senator Puppis is a leading candidate for President, and the movie takes place during several rounds of voting where the candidates’ names are read off as the votes come in. The juvenile in me cackles every time.
Perhaps it’s a fool’s errand to try to say something about social commentary in a commedia sexy all’italiana, a genre that intentionally eschewed such ideas. But the things we laugh at are social. One endearing theme is how politics takes a lesser role in public life. As the election progresses, it’s broadcast on a bevy of television sets in a storefront, only for the camera to pan to a crowd outside of another storefront displaying a football match. Several factions, including high-ranking members of the Vatican, the military and perhaps the mafia, are deeply invested in Puppis’s election, but the common citizen is not.
In fact, the rumor for the masses is that the unmarried Senator Puppis is gay (although, as a notice for those considering watching the movie, the characters use a slur), which is ironic because the big scandal of the story is that he has felt up another head of state on film. This puts all of the factions into a tizzy, leading them to tap each other’s phones and work to decode secret messages. They are convinced Puppis has double-crossed them after years of presidential grooming. The military is upset that this is the first coup about which they were not informed. The cardinal takes the Lord’s name in vain in front of the Pope (only to break into song). All are concerned that if the public finds out the senator likes women, all is lost.
Senator Puppis? He simply wants to know why he keeps blacking out and having these unspeakable urges and why, when viewing a feminine backside, he has an irresistible urge to grasp on and never let go. After all, he has sworn off sex, explaining that “For me, politics is like the priesthood. All statesmen should act as I do.” His father impressed upon him that Satan speaks through women.
He enlists the help of an unscrupulous priest to head off to a spiritual retreat. There, with the help of a German priest, nuns and a vivid dream, he is believed to be cured. It is only after he is headed back to Rome that the priest discovers Puppis unknowingly slept with the nuns 21 times in a single night — with the Mother Superior pursuing him to Rome.
With religion, politics and sex all mixed up, it’s only natural to apply our own lens of the cultural conflagration of control that each of these topics demands, especially where they overlap. Unethical cardinals. Promiscuous nuns. Chaste politicians. Multitudes contained, bursting forth at the seams. For anyone entrapped by purity culture or our collective fondness to possess the ur-form of willpower, there’s something to appreciate in a character experiencing a moment of clarity by embracing an element of his self.
On the other hand, I watched this movie years ago, forgot what it was called and always asked my partner to remember the film where the guy couldn’t get his hand off the nun’s butt. I still just shout out “Puppis! Puppis!” to them occasionally.
Movies are weird.