Director: Andrea Segre (Italy). Year of Release: 2020
Have you ever been to Venice? Since the introduction of Interrail and cheap flights, a lot more people have, bringing with them all sorts of problems which we’ll talk about later. Andrea Segre isn’t exactly a tourist – although he grew up in Padua, his father was a proud Venetian, until he had to move away to study Chemistry. In this film, Segre returns to his parents’ home town to talk to the locals about what it’s like to live in a city full of tourists.
But the Venice we see is nearly empty. Segre started filming on 22nd February 2020, 3 days before carnival was due to start. Then, Covid happened and Carnival was cancelled. As hundreds died in Milan and Bergamo, the tourists started to leave (incidentally, isn’t it quaint to only be talking about hundreds of Covid deaths?) Soon, the town – and its canals – were virtually empty. By the end of the film, people are only able to celebrate birthday parties over Zoom.
Segre continued filming. He films Gigi, a 70-year old fisherman who recounts an old Chinese proverb: “If you marry, you’re happy for a week / If you kill a pig, you’re happy for a month / If you learn how to fish, you’re happy for the rest of your life”. Gigi, who has learned how to fish is content with his isolation, apparently pleased that the tourists are no longer there to disturb him.
Segre moves on to Elena, a young gondolier, and her friend Giulia. Of the 29 people in Elena’s school class, only 5 or 6 are still in Venice. Most couldn’t cope with the expensive housing and lack of jobs. Those who remain have an ambiguous relationship with the tourists who force up prices but provide just about the only source of income in a town with few other available jobs.
This is not the only negative impact of tourism. Increased transport on the canals has led to rougher waves, which in turn have caused floods. As Elena (or possibly Giulia) says: “perhaps the only good thing about there being no people in Venice is that the rough waves have disappeared. They’ve disappeared. And suddenly it’s become clear who is responsible for these waves: the boats which carry the tourists around.”
In November 2019, Venice suffered serious floods which hit the headlines worldwide. We see archive film of men carrying their partners on piggy back through waterlogged streets. Giulia’s ground floor flat was flooded, and she still has to organise her furniture precariously to avoid the sodden floor. But, Giulia says, she couldn’t contemplate moving out of Venice – well, not unless someone offers her a dream job somewhere else.
In among the interviews and old and new film of Venice, Segre contemplates his father, Ulderico, with whom he doesn’t seem to have had a close relationship. Ulderico was born with a heart defect, so spent his life knowing that he could die any minute. This could explain why his favourite author was Albert Camus. He said that his favourite book was L’Etranger because it showed the unavoidable relationship between people and their fate.
The film opens with a quote from L’Etranger: “From the dark horizon of my future a sort of slow, persistent breeze had been blowing toward me, all my life long, from the years that were to come.“ Later, Segre puts forward the hypothesis that his father studied molecules as a way of understanding how you can find rules in coincidence, to understand what Camus called the absurdity of life.
While much of Segre’s talk about his father is touching, towards the end of the film, some of his narration becomes a little solipsistic, and you get the feeling that we are intruding on private grief. It is patently clear that Segre wants to know more about the man with whom he never communicated sufficiently in life, but this feels like the wrong medium to be having this attempted conversation.
Nonetheless, Moleküle der Erinnerung is a fascinating series of portraits – of the gondoliers who give lessons in English to people they wish were elsewhere, of a plague that has hit Venice just as severely as the one of 1630, and of a city that most of us, myself included, only know from a tourist’s angle (the German subtitle of the film is “Venice as no-one knows it”).
So what are the molecules of the title? There’s the molecules of the virus, of course, invisible but fatal. There are the molecules that the chemist Ulderico studied. But, as the film mentions in passing, there are the particles which follow their own lonely path, but occasionally come close enough to other particles to have some interaction. This is a nice, if slightly depressing, metaphor for humanity, which is befitting for a thoughtful film.