Celeste Aida

I am a romantic. Sure, I have been called insensitive and self-righteous, but that was only by someone I was dating, and–really–what did she know? By romantic, I mean in a broader sense. I am attracted to the grand finale, the Kirk Gibson home run, the Hail Mary pass, and the boom-puff-sizzle of July Fourth. I also appreciate the coup de foudre lightning bolt of love: Beatrice at the bridge, Juliet at the balcony, Helen at the parapet, and Sinatra’s crowded room with strangers exchanging glances as the band played on.

In short, I am an idiot. But it’s not the end of the world, because being an idiot is one thing, thinking you’re something else quite another. I know I am an idiot, which is half the battle—the rear half, yes—but half nevertheless.

Please, do not misunderstand me. This isn’t about my being a hopeless romantic, nor even a hopeful one, since I’ve never denied that life is anything other than harsh. But it is precisely because of its harshness that I look for a little magic every now and then. And by magic, I don’t mean shopping at Macy’s. That’s not so bad, is it? Isn’t that the human condition: striving to create magic out of the harshness of the elements, poverty, hunger, inhumanity, violence, and most social institutions whose sole aim is to squeeze the life out of you like an orange?

This is why one of my favorite movies is Valerio Zurlini’s La Ragazza con la Valigia (The Girl with a Suitcase), 1961. It is an incredible film about young love and includes the most romantic scene I have ever seen (apart from the time I proposed to my wife on one knee after she had locked herself in the bathroom).

In the scene, twenty-something Aida has just taken a bath at Lorenzo’s family estate (I seem to have a thing for bathrooms). Sixteen-year-old Lorenzo watches as she glides down the staircase in a bathrobe with her hair wrapped in a towel. The famous tenor, Beniamino Gigli, sings the aria Celeste Aida.

Lorenzo is played by a wispy Jacques Perrin and Aida by Claudia Cardinale, who weighed more than him even back then. Lorenzo is transfixed by her beauty, her mystery, and the depth of Verdi’s music. Perrin plays him enraptured. Aida, reacting to Lorenzo and feeling naked, draws the bathrobe tighter around herself.

Not a word is spoken between them, yet Zurlini captured the tormented longing and tragic nature of young love in their gazes, which may be the essence of all love. After all, isn’t all love tragic in some way? The scene reminded me of Faust: “Verweile doch! Du bist so schön!” (1, v. 1700: “Stay a while, you are so beautiful!”). Of course, The New York Times film critic at the time missed the point entirely, but regardless of the tone deaf review, you can feel the tidal power of attraction in that one scene. It is followed immediately by Cardinale eating eggs and ricotta cheese in the kitchen. Pure genius.

What does all of this mean? I think it has to do with what we perceive as “meant to be.” The inevitability of their love becomes obvious as the plot develops, finally reaching its climax in a beach scene. This, despite their differences in social class, upbringing, and age. Lorenzo is driven by his obsession for and fascination with Aida. Aida realizes that the only man in her life who truly cares for her is a boy. The tender moment they share is intense but fleeting. Their love is meant to be but only for a moment. Their parting scene at a train station (where else?) is wrenching. Verweile doch! Du bist so schön!

So, what about “meant to be”?

What I have learned is that “meant to be” is not about people, places, or things (i.e., a noun) but the way in which we relate to those same people, places, and things (e.g., a verb). That is, you are not necessarily meant to be with one particular person in a certain place for a specified time; you are, however, meant to relate to people with wonder, awe, and love. All of that requires presence of mind, compassion of heart, and strength of will to acknowledge the beauty of life just as Lorenzo did with Aida.

It reminds me of the time I sat near a young boy on a plane and he couldn’t get over the fact that we were up above the clouds. He wouldn’t sit still and kept describing the clouds and ground below to all who would listen. His mother finally told him to be quiet. He did, but he could hardly contain himself.

His name was Lorenzo.

This week’s post is adapted from the forthcoming book, Nine Lives. Haven’t had enough? Go to Robert Brancatelli. Note to self: no more shots of Fireball! Photos from Comrade Von Pussycat, all rights reserved.

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