Thesis: Our perception of history is a product of human memory, but memory itself is imperfect and transient.
We do not remember days; we remember moments.
THE MEMORIES that evoke the strongest emotions are the ones we tend to remember most vividly—even those inconsequential details may easily be retrieved from our minds, like the images of Malena’s clothes being ripped off, her burnt knee as it scrapes on the cement, the strands of white blond hair that falls from the pair of scissors by a furious wife in a piazza in Sicily. This particular scene, in the director’s cut of the movie Malena, enraged me so much that the scene left me gasping for breath in utter shock.
This tragic scene resulted from the townspeople’s impressions of Malena. The women saw a prostitute and an unfaithful wife in her. To the men, she was an irresistible object that can satisfy their most passionate urges. What about her virtuous inner qualities—her overwhelming fidelity and peaceful presence? It has been overshadowed by her seductive beauty, as people tend to pay more attention to what strikes the eye first. It is called selective memory and we tend to be very good at it.
Malena seems to have been cursed by a spell of hatred and loneliness because people were blinded by her beauty. Fortunately, there was one person whose eyes had seen a far more clearer view of Malena’s story and who she truly is, who is without surprise, a pubescent twelve-year-old boy named Renato.
Throughout the whole movie, Renato lusts over Malena from a distance, without ever touching nor speaking to her. When he gets home, he sees Malena’s body in his mind as if he has memorized every part of her perfectly shaped body, allowing him to conjure extraordinary fantasies to satisfy his desires.
Every one of his intense fantasies of Malena occurred within the vast depths of his adolescent mind, which shows how people are extremely capable of creating their own experiences within their minds, and that history does not necessarily have to have happened externally, but history is indeed a product of our imperfect memories, usually real and true, but sometimes tainted with imagination.
His daydreams illustrate our innate power to distort our own reality. We create our own realities, the imaginative artists and writers would say. This could explain how a single event in history will have several stories, depending on the number of people present at that moment and sometimes multiplied by the range of emotions one feels. One person can retell a story to two friends differently, based on how that person remembers the past and based on what past emotion has been evoked at that moment. Therefore, each story can be told in an infinite number of ways.
His daydreams illustrate our innate power to distort our own reality.
Each person present in the city when Malena walks along Sicily will have a different experience of her. One memory is a thread which weaves itself into an invisible quilt of intertwined memories, forming the still incomplete story of Malena. This is how history is formed through memories. Similar to when the prostitute asks Renato if it was his first time, he shook his head and said he has “imagined it lots of times.” This line explicitly reveals how imagination plays a crucial role in forming history. We constantly imagine and dream, but distinguishing imagination from memory is difficult, because bits of imagination keep sprinkling to our pure memories and tarnishes them, making them flawed.
When I listen to a gripping history lecture, I do not know what my teacher is thinking; I only grab onto his words and I myself form my own picture of what must have happened back then. That story will then become uniquely special to each student who is listening.
The townspeople’s gossiping was a way to distort what really happened in Malena’s bedroom. Malena stayed faithful to her husband but only Renato knew the truth because he was the only person who was able believe it, because he has seen Malena in her most private moments inside her home—a perspective the townspeople did not have.
History could as well work that way. People who record any kind of history have only their selves to rely on when chronicling important events. Each person has his own view of what happened, therefore one historian’s view is only a narrow account from all the other people who could have a better perspective of the story.
Each person has his own view of what happened, therefore one historian’s view is only a narrow account from all the other people who could have a better perspective of the story.
Malena, who has left town and went back with her husband to the shock of the people, bravely faces a world where vestiges of the past will always linger, but the good news is that the people’s feelings towards her changed because time allows memories to slowly fade, as Malena grows wrinkles and gains a little weight. Renato does not need to tell Malena about his feelings for her maybe because successfully protecting Malena and her acknowledging his presence is enough for Malena to remember him. The gesture of picking the fallen oranges, of him riding away in the opposite direction of his bike reveals how he has finally let go of his love for Malena, but his experience of her will linger in his mind, changing how he will behave towards other women, towards his own life and his view of the world.
What is fascinating about memory is that people come to remember things because of cues, links, symbols, and signs. When Malena is not around, I doubt that people would still be as enraged with her as when she is walking gracefully right in front of them. As with one’s own history, we will never get the whole picture at one moment. We remember things from the past as they come up in relation to our present. When a girl is in cloud nine in dating her new boyfriend, why on earth would she be thinking of her past relationships at that very moment?
Memory is eternally intertwined with emotion.
Written historical accounts and museums can give us a more or less accurate grasp of history. Yet these are very transient and imperfect as well, because we are only shown one tiny piece of the puzzle at a time.
Now I realize that our perception of history, our idea of what has happened in the past depends mostly on how we both think and feel about the past. When men think of Malena, they feel lust. When women think of Malena, they feel jealousy and threat. Merely one thing can already conjure several emotions from people. What more can come from a certain moment in history when thousands of people’s lives are being changed in the same single minute?
The discipline of history teaches us how to organize the stories we have of the world not in an orderly fashion, but in such a way that when we encounter present situations, we can so easily conjure history onto our working memories and apply them to our daily lives. Like what Renato does so impeccably well—he sleeps with a prostitute but imagines she is Malena. His vivid picture of Malena allows him to do just that.
Because of memory, what has long died will come to life in our minds—Malena dancing with the photograph symbolizes that. Moreover, it is intriguing to think how Malena can easily believe her husband is dead, we can easily believe the stories that were told to us, even though we do not have tangible proof. It scares me to think that when a person thinks about something over and over again, the more they will eventually come to believe it, no matter if it is true or not.
What is as well devastating and a bit liberating to think about though is the fact that history is indeed transient and are slowly fleeting away as our minds grow old and are being replaced by new memories and stories. Accounts of history in books, newspapers, and news reports are help us remember but always incompletely. Technically, humans will always be flawed and forgetful creatures anyway, so there is nothing to fret about. If you want to preserve your transient and imperfect history, the best way to do it is to take a picture every day, write about your day including how you felt and what you’ve seen. Of course, don’t forget to enjoy each present moment. Life is right here, right now, nothing more, nothing less. History is merely a thoroughly detailed guide of how far we have come and how far we have left to go in our brief moments of existence.
History is merely a thoroughly detailed guide of how far we have come and how far we have left to go in our brief moments of existence.
Like Malena and the townspeople, they have let the flow of time fade away the harsh memories of the past and move on with their lives, with lessons learned and unforgettable moments shared.
Of all the girls who asked me to remember them, the only one I remembered is the one who did not ask.