“Normality is a Paved Road Comfortable to Walk But No Flowers Grow On It”

—Vincent Van Gogh

‘VOLARE’, Gabriele Salvatores (Italy, 2019) screening at the Italian Film Festival in London, Friday 6th March 2020

Film Review by Franco Ferrarini, gastroenterologist and film reviewer

Vincent (Giulio Pranno), a sixteen-year-old boy affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), lives with his mother Elena (Valeria Golino) and her companion Mario (Diego Abatantuono) confined in a beautiful villa, with little contact with the outside world. One night he accidentally meets his father Willi (Claudio Santamaria) who had abandoned Elena and his unborn baby as soon as Elena got pregnant. After this brief encounter, Vincent decides to run away from home to follow Willi in his tour as a singer at parties and weddings in Slovenia and Croatia.

Featuring outstanding performances from Giulio Pranno as ‘Vincent’ and Claudio Santamaria as ‘Willi’, the film is loosely based on the novel ‘Se ti abbraccio non aver paura’ (Do not be scared if I give you a hug) by Fulvio Ervas which was inspired by a true story of a father who takes his autistic son on a motorcycle trip in South America. The novel’s narrative alternated between the viewpoint of father and son.

 

Similarly, in the film, we follow Vincent and Willi, a drunken modest entertainer who makes a living by imitating the famous Italian singer Domenico Modugno, whose most famous song inspires the title of the film. By being close to his son on the road adventure, facing together dire straits, Willi gradually learns how to understand and to share his son’s thoughts and emotions. In other words, he evolves as a mature man taking responsibility of his son for the first time.

Vincent, who experiences a new sense of freedom and autonomy, also transforms as an adolescent exploring the small pleasures of life. His imprisonment, albeit in a golden cage surrounded by psychologists and horse therapists, was detrimental to his well-being. The opening shot shows him running wildly among a bunch of horses, hinting that what he needs is to live freely as any other boy of his age. Living and sharing life with other people may enhance the effects of psychosocial therapies which are the mainstay of treatment in ASD. While psychotropic drugs may help manage symptoms of irritability and aggression as the mainstay of pharmacological treatments[1] leading a normal life shared with others may enhance the effect of drugs.

Vincent and Willi bonding on their road journey
Vincent and Willi bonding on their road journey

There is more to say about the film’s core message in relation to the blurred line that exists between normal and abnormal where human behaviour is concerned. The name ‘Vincent’ was given to the boy in memory of Elena and Willi’s favourite song “Vincent” (Don McLean, 1971) which celebrates the famous Dutch painter van Gogh, who was affected by an undetermined psychopathological condition.[2] Van Gogh was painfully aware that his capacity to create beautiful paintings came at the price of bearing a label of ‘insanity’. Young Vincent too is labelled as insane and, as van Gogh did, he has full insight of his problem as seen in a poignant scene showing him and his father side by side exchanging messages on a computer screen; Willi writes “you don’t talk too much” and Vincent responds “I see words in my head but I don’t know how to speak them”. One may argue that people who live inside their own world but are unable to communicate it verbally with others should not be labelled as “abnormal”. The phenomenological approach to psychopathology by Karl Jaspers[3] proposed that an individual with mental illness should be addressed with the aim of understanding the meaning of her/his symptoms rather than, or better along with, the aim of explaining them from a neurobiological viewpoint. The philosophical rationale for this approach is that anyone lives in our world dictated by his/her inner world; the medical relevance of this concept is that understanding a person’s inner world, thus also the significance of their symptoms, may give useful clues as how to support their well-being. Perhaps—if we adopt that approach with Vincent, then he can be seen as a ‘different person’ in society rather than an abnormal one.

 

References

[1] De Filippis M & Dineen Wagner K, Treatment if autism spectrum disorders in children and adolescents. Psychopharmacology Bull 2016;46:18–41.

[2] Blumer D, The illness of Vincent van Gogh. Am J Psychiatry 2002;159:519–526.

[3] Telles-Correia D et al, Jasper’s Phenomenology. Folia Med (Plovdiv) 2018;60:373-80.

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