The many faces of the Joker

What does Todd Phillips’ movie tell us?

His disquieting face has been watching us for several weeks now on many streets in the city. The expectant suspense he created after his presentation at the Venice Film Festival was confirmed in the “box office”. Then one, two, five acquiantances who say “I went to watch it” such that – so as not to be too far behind, and having seen from the trailer that it was not a discharge of death and blood – I too went to watch the famous “Joker”.

It is a film with many faces, just like the protagonist: a more intimate and introspective one which narrates the painful and tormented genesis of the man Arthur and the public ascent of a character disguised as a clown who happens to be at the centre of everything, the Joker . The two parts find their convergence in the unquestionable interpretation of Joaquin Phoenix, because it manages to reveal the continuity, the progression and the indissolubility of Arthur’s human pain and torment with the violent madness of the Joker, which does not appear so crazy, so detached from reason but paradoxically understandable and inevitable. It is empathy for Arthur, along with the resistance that one feels in the face of so much accumulated weakness, which makes it difficult not to enter into his disorderly progress and not take part in the drama. Even the music mixes anxiety and joy, tragedy and comedy, in a background that increasingly loses its rationality and equilibrium, where indeed boundaries merge.

The limits of responsibility, of morality, of guilt gradually fade away. Conscience is lost in its judgments between unpredictable circumstances, between irrepressible instincts and astute plans. The world in which Arthur grows and lives is precisely that of a cynical city without certainties, where the fragile son of society can only be trampled on and marginalised. And laughing and making people laugh is the only way to deal with the unjust fate of an unsolicited despair. But when he discovers that violence as a language of self-defence can be another way to survive, to have his say, to not succumb to his own pain, Arthur’s story takes a step towards that of the Joker. “It was like no one saw me, even I didn’t know if I really existed.” Now yes, everyone is talking about him and his destiny seems to be in his own hands, even his very pain finds itself melting away in that of others.

This is how the villain we all know from the comics takes shape, but the film has the merit of showing that he does not come out of nowhere, but is born and nourished in his pain and in his history as a fragile and trampled child.

But there is not only his subjective perspective: the camera’s objective is also extended to a city that recognises itself in a man with a mask, who kills the arrogant bullies of society, to the point of putting on the same mask with him and turn him into a symbol of redemption. I admit that I was left quite struck by this somewhat complex transition from the interior to the social, from pain to the desire to exist and to claim one’s share of speech and justice. It is not difficult to find today, in the newspapers and in the news, stories of uprisings and public protests, not of people without food or shelter, but of a very extended class of people who feel crushed by an arrogance hidden and hypocritically accepted by the accursed and undefined system. A good part of the responsibility belongs to politics, economics and the media. And many times the leaders who wish to represent the reasons of the people go, more or less utilitarianly, against these powers. In this way they think they can obtain consent and with consent, power.

Violence thus becomes the form of existing in the soup of injustice, indifference and solitude in which we feel immersed. “It was like no one saw me, even I didn’t know if I really existed,” says he who one takes to be the fool. But that perhaps represents only that uncontaminated dose of unreasonable violence present in the indistinct mass, where the individual disappears in his wounded story or in his desires buried by his ordinary non-existence. And so, welcome and glory to those who finally bring out our truth, our desire to exist and to have our say. But what remains of that pain and that fear that violence leaves unexpressed and forgotten?

It is at this point that the Joker becomes the alter ego of Batman. Chaos against order. Violence without reason and good above everything all else. “You complete me,” says the Joker to Batman in “The Dark Knight” by C. Nolan. And it is curious that even the first part of Nolan’s trilogy “Batman Begins” recounts how the story of Bruce Wayne triggers that of Batman. The pain, the anger, the will to seek justice give life to the symbol of hope and future for the city. But seeing it now, in 2019, after seeing the Joker, he almost seems like a hero of the last century, like reading Kant whilst listening to Trap. Returning to black and white, good and bad, in the time of “Who are you to say that it is not right? And of all people, you’re one to talk”. If in fact the cinema represents the immagination of an era, how can we not see in the Joker the ambiguous caress of an ever deeper sense of anger and social resentment towards an arrogance as extensive as it is indistinct. How not to perceive the loss of a need to hope, even if only in a hero, to take refuge in the destructive and self-absolving exercise of looking for a scapegoat, to express in any way their discomfort. In a way, to exist.

But faced with this context, which prompts the agonising question “Where are we going to end up?” in so many people of this time, it seems to me a light can be glimpsed. In the story of Arthur’s suffering and in his anguished and desperate laughter there is a question and an urgency much more pressing than today’s ethical crisis. And it is that of a closeness and a listening that today remains unheard and left unanswered, whilst everyone is busy expressing their own disgust.

“Anyone can be a hero, even a man who does something simple and reassuring, like putting a coat on a child’s shoulders to make him understand that the world is not over,” Batman tells Gordon at the end of Nolan’s trilogy. The heroism of today and the grace to ask, as Ignazio would say, is perhaps precisely that of reminding oneself and others that the world does not end where there is no more light, but that it begins where there is another nearby.

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