Dante Was Among the First Interviewers

in 56th Festival Internacional de Cine de Cartagena de Indias (FICCI)

by Gerald Peary

“Dante was among the first interviewers,” is a cogent insight about The Inferno from Professor Raffaele Pinto, as he dazzles his University of Barcelona students in Jose Luis Guerin’s The Academy of the Muses/La Academia De Las Musas. This faux documentary by the veteran Catalan filmmaker begins in Pinto’s actual classroom. Guerin’s two-person crew eavesdrops on several operatic, virtuoso lectures by the erudite Italian-born scholar, who, in real life, has taught philology here in Spain for forty years. Who is Dante “interviewing” as he stumbles through the circles of Hell? A pair of doomed lovers, whose uncontrolled passion in real life sent them deep into the bowels of Hades. Discussing passion in Dante allows Professor Pinto a bridge to jump to the present.  He will ruminate also about passion in the turbulent lives of his students. He’s so impressive as a teacher because he makes his classics lectures germane to our times, and so deeply personal.

Guerin moves his camera to close-ups of Pinto’s charges in their seats, mesmerized by the wisdom of their instructor. Especially the women. These are far older students than typical undergraduates, in their 30s and 40s, returned to school for a special course with the esteemed philologist. For them, Pinto’s combination of esoteric knowledge and intimate discussion is especially appealing. At first, they listen with awe to what he has to say, then slowly gaining confidence, they offer up their own theories about passion, about love, and about the special topic of this seminar, male poets and their muses. Dante and Beatrice. Abelard and Heloise.

Is this a noble relationship, the artist male inspired by the woman on a pedestal? Or, as some today would argue, is this arrangement sexist, grossly inequitable? Frankly, is the lofty poet masking that he’s a lecher beneath his exquisite oratory? What’s really up with Professor Raffaele Pinto?

The Academy of the Muses follows The Great Man home, and the movie turns Woody Allen-funny. Pinto is juxtaposed with his quarrelsome, bossy wife, Rosa Delor Muns, also a professor. Previously, Pinto had authority, as he was filmed looming above his worshipful students. Now, Guerin shoots the aging married couple through the glass of a window. An angered Delor Muns controls the front of the frame, Pinto sits passive, squashed behind her. She offers a litany of complaints against her husband, dismissing as nonsense what he’d said in his class, and questioning the purity of his motives.

Delor Muns has reason to be suspect. As The Academy of the Muses, moves into high gear, we see Pinto sitting in his car with, at different times, various of his female students. Yes, his classroom is a place of calculated seduction! In one automobile scene, we see him kissing a voluptuous Italian brunette, who, we ascertain, was an earlier mistress. Later in the movie, he makes a trip to Naples with another woman, a Spanish blonde. His current amour.

Give credit to Guerin for giving us all sides to his hero, Pinto, showing him admirably, as a great mind, and satirically, as a fop in love. Give credit to Pinto for allowing such naked exposure. He reaches rock bottom on a trip to Sardinia with his Italian ex-love to tape record the ancient songs of sheep herders. His plan is, of course, to rekindle their relationship. Instead, she becomes intoxicated by a local man, who is far younger and more macho than the suddenly jealous professor.

The Academy of the Muses is a very “European” movie. In my puritanical United States, nobody would tolerate, much less condone, the actions of Pinto stepping out on his wife.  It’s not OK in the USA to have a mistress who is your student, or to have several mistresses, as in the case of horny Professor Pinto.  American would find especially unsavory the finest scene in the movie, when Pinto’s wife arranges a lunch with his latest mistress, the blonde. What starts out politely ends in an old-fashioned verbal cat fight, about who has the ultimate claims on the professor.

The feminist wife seemingly disavows her feminism. Instead of divorcing her compulsively adulterous husband, Delor Muns brags that she’s the one he will stay with until death. The Academy of Muses ends at their family doorstep. She, not his student girlfriends, is Raffaele Pinto’s ultimate muse.

Gerald Peary