The Orpheus Myth in Modern Cinema

Roger Macfarlane presented the Italian film L’attesa to the International Cinema.

l'attesaPROVO, Utah (Oct. 4, 2016)—Professor of Classical Studies Roger Macfarlane first saw the 2015 Italian film L’attesa (The Wait) on an airplane, dubbed entirely in Italian. He would later find that the film is bilingual, with dialogue and music in Italian, French and English. But he was immediately won over by the film’s intimate portrayal of grief and coping.

In L’attesa, Jeanne arrives at her boyfriend’s home in a small Italian villa and waits with his mother, Anna, for his return. Unbeknownst to Jeanne, her boyfriend has died, knowledge that Anna keeps to herself out of grief. The film is the directorial debut of Piero Messina; though it opened to mixed reviews, many critics still believed it to be a promising start to a young career. Macfarlane, however, believes it is even more than that.

“I think there’s a sophistication in it that some of the reviewers . . . are overlooking,” Macfarlane said while introducing the film in an International Cinema lecture. “The reason why I was intrigued by it . . . was that I perceived an Orpheus theme that was running through it.”

In Greek mythology, Orpheus is a young musician whose wife, Eurydice, dies before her time. Grieved, Orpheus travels to the underworld and uses his music to sway the god Hades into giving Eurydice back. Hades allows Eurydice to follow Orpheus back to the world of the living, on the condition that the musician not turn to look at her until both have reached the surface. Orpheus makes nearly the entire trip filled with both hope and anxiety, only to look back at the last moment and see his wife disappear forever.

Similar to the Greek hero’s journey, Anna’s depression takes her to extreme depths in attempts to keep her son alive. Of course, all of these attempts ultimately fail and only serve to push Anna deeper into her depression. But an even stronger tie to the original myth is its use of mirroring, a common element in retellings of Orpheus.

“There are figurative mirrors in this movie . . . where you have two individuals who act off one another,” Macfarlane explained. Anna and Jeanne are the most common mirrors for one another, in both scene blocking and in character development. At several moments, Anna attempts and fails to live through the younger woman, watching her take part in activities she longs to relive. The film also makes liberal use of literal mirrored surfaces to further this effect.

While giving his notes, Macfarlane encouraged the students to try for themselves to make sense of the film and build their own interpretations, rather than take his as the final word. He even issued an invitation: “If you can explain to me why Pietro, who’s the house servant, . . . has no apparent mirror character, I’d love to know it.”

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)


Samuel covers events for the Department of Linguistics and English Language for the College of Humanities. He is a senior pursuing a degree in American studies with a minor in editing.