Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Massey Murder

The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master and the Trial that Shocked a Country by Charlotte Gray (HarperCollins, 2013) 308 pages

Few murders galvanized Torontonians in the last century like the murder of Charles Albert Massey, grandson of the industrialist and philanthropist Hart Massey, by his eighteen year old maid Carrie Davies. Here indeed was a clear and disturbing demarcation of the only two perceived classes that existed in Canada at the time: "the Masseys and the masses" quipped B.K. SandwellSaturday Night editor.

Charlotte Gray, a respected historian of Canadian figures, attempts to link the historical climate - specifically the turmoil of World War I in 1915 - and the murder of C.A. Massey. I'm not sure if she succeeds here even though the historical data collected about wartime Toronto is fascinating. 

Carrie Davies

Carrie shot her employer on the steps of his Walmer Rd. home with his own gun because Massey had, in her words "ruined her" (more on that anon). She had been instructed on its use by the man's own unsuspecting son. Carrie was an unsophisticated British immigrant from an impoverished family residing in a gritty English railway town. She financially supported her widowed mother and three younger siblings with wages sent back to England. She had been forced into domestic service at thirteen due to the family's financial circumstances and her mother's poor health and had moved to Toronto to join her married sister to search for work.

Charles Albert Massey (known more commonly as "Bert") was the son of Charles Albert Massey Sr., the once favourite son of Hart Massey. With the untimely demise of Charles Albert Sr. at an early age and Hart Massey's unsuccessful attempts to have Bert and his younger sister Bessie live with their grandparents in their Jarvis St. mansion, Hart Massey turned against his daughter-in-law Jessie Massey, wife of Charles Albert Sr., and her children once she re-married.

Euclid Hall, the one time home of Hart Massey, 
Charles Albert Massey's grandfather

The wealthier Masseys, such as Hart Massey and his unmarried daughter Lillian Massey, lived at Euclid Hall on Jarvis Street (shown above). I have been fascinated with this house and its former residents for some time and have written about it here

Charles Albert's own more successful older brother Arthur Massey lived at the more upscale 165 Admiral Rd. in the Annex but Charles Albert, a modestly successful automobile salesman for York Motors, lived at 169 Walmer Rd. (shown below).

169 Walmer Rd, the scene of the murder

Gray paints a vivid and lurid picture of early 20th c. Toronto - a city exploding with newly arrived immigrants and customs largely distrusted by the Anglo majority (85% of whom claimed British ancestry) and particularly concentrated in "The Ward" (also knonw as St John's Ward) - a neighbourhood bordered by College, Yonge, Queen and University streets and described as "notorious" with overcrowded rooming houses, rife with diseases such as tuberculosis and typhoid as well as crime ...

The depictions of the two principals involved in the murder were extreme and sharply drawn in the newspapers who took opposing views of the crime.

Charles Albert was portrayed by Davies' lawyer and a portion of the media as a slightly debauched seducer of the virginal Carrie who, even though she claimed had been suggestively approached by Massey and offered a ring as a gift the day before, waited a day and a half to stop his expected advances on the steps of his own home. Carrie was depicted as a virtuous, naive maid in conflict with a victimizing, lecherous employer making the most of his American wife Rhoda's absence from home.

By other sources, Carrie's reputation - there were allegations that she was mad or ill with epilepsy - was pitted against that of a scion of the Massey legacy. She was initially portrayed as a mentally unstable "foreigner" given to unexplained fits who over-reacted to a alleged advance by her unsuspecting and kindly master of good breeding and pedigree. 

The trial and the acquittal of Carrie Davies marked a remarkable shift in societal attitudes towards the affluent Masseys and the Anglo upper crust who ruled both the judicial system and politics. And perhaps the war did have a hand in the demystification of the upper classes as many young men of all classes and ranks met the same fate during WWI - death, disfigurement, loss of employment due to crippling wounds. Few families could claim that they were untouched by the war nor had contributed to the war effort.

Carrie's vindication represented a dramatic shift within Toronto society. It was not a given that an affluent (or in this case semi-affluent) citizen necessarily would triumph in the criminal justice system or in public opinion.

Carrie fades from the public memory after the trial and eventually she marries and settles on a farm north of Toronto and appeared to live a hard scrabble existence there. So traumatized by the defining event of her youth, she never spoke of it to her daughter Margaret Grainger who only learned of her history from the resourceful Toronto Star reporter Frank Jones who dug up the historical record in the 1980s and wrote his own book on the subject Master and Maid: The Charles Massey Murder.

Still living when Gray finished her own account, daughter Margaret, then in her 80s, was too unnerved to speak of it to Gray. Some wounds are too raw, even a century later, the authour notes. 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

What I read in 2014


Inspired by that dedicated reader Ruth Seeley's recent post, I wanted to catalogue all the books I've read this year in the order I read them. Some are highbrow, some low ... some read out of duty, others eagerly anticipated like The Goldfinch. 

The stand-outs for me were The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (fiction), Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon (non-fiction) and The Complete Maus by Art Speigelman (graphic novel), which somehow I have missed reading all these years.  

The List: 
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
Salvador by Joan Didion
The Hole in the Middle by Kate Hilton
The Girl who Loved Camellias by Julie Kavanaugh
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Dear Life by Alice Munro
Poetry and Drama by T.S. Eliot
The End of Men: And The Rise of Women by Hanna Rosin
Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem
Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon
Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman & Paul Clark Newell, Jr. (Please see review here)
Lionel Asbo: State of England by Martin Amis
Florence Gordon by Brian Mortin (Please see review here) 
A Recipe for Disaster and Other Unlikely Tales of Love by Eufemia Fantetti
The Ask by Sam Lypsite
The Complete Maus by Art Speigelman
Thirty Eight Witnesses by A.M. Rosenthal
Let's just say it wasn't pretty by Diane Keaton
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
What Maisie Knew by Henry James
11/22/1963 by Stephen King
The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta (Please see review here)
Prison Noir ed. by Joyce Carol Oates (Please see review here)
The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham (Please see review here)
Let us compare mythologies by Leonard Cohen
Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez
A Mother's Story by Gloria Vanderbilt (Please see review here)
My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff
James Joyce by Edna O'Brien
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman
The Second Plane - September 11: Terror and Boredom by Martin Amis 
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Hotel on Place Vendome: Life, Death, and Betrayal at the Hotel Ritz in Paris by Tilar J. Mazzeo
The Children Act by Ian McEwan
Extraordinary by David Gilmour
The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master and the Trial that Shocked a Country by Charlotte Gray (Please see review here)


Wednesday, December 31, 2014

December Cultural Roundup

Kim's Convenience at Soulpepper
Films
Stardust Memories (U.S., 1980)
The Theory of Everything (U.K., 2014)
Wild (U.S., 2014)
Hannah and Her Sisters (U.S., 1986)
White Christmas (U.S., 1954)
Interstellar (U.S., 2014)
The Purple Rose of Cairo (U.S., 1985)
Radio Days (U.S., 1987)
Big Eyes (U.S., 2014)
Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (U.K., 2005)

Books:
Extraordinary by David Gilmour
The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master and the Trial that Shocked a Country by Charlotte Gray

Theatre
Kim's Convenience at Soulpepper, December 23, 2014

Exhibits
Alex Colville, Art Gallery of Ontario
Art Spiegelman, Art Gallery of Ontario

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Skirmish on Christmas


This is a reprint from a blog posted a few years ago but I think it's still relevant...

Let me say up front that I have a healthy skepticism about the purported "war on Christmas" that is allegedly, and perennially, being waged by atheists, non-Christians and general purveyors of the destruction of Christian culture in the Western world. The biggest (and loudest) proponents of this view are, of course, Fox News and Christian televangelist Pat Robertson, ad nauseum, every Christmas season.

This war is, at best, perhaps a skirmish rather than a war - its militants are armed not with nuclear armaments but some lesser weapon ... say, machetes or, possibly, bayonets. 

What Fox News fails to acknowledge is that the Christmas spirit, such as it is, is omnipresent, pervasive, sometimes annoyingly so, in a society so obsessed with materialism and ostentatious public displays of wealth. It not so surreptitiously follows you into the drugstore, on to street corners, into the workplace, into every retail outlet and coffee shop with merchandise to peddle. It is virtually inescapable for those who do not celebrate it.

One minister recently offered an astute observation as to the biggest threat to the true meaning of Christmas: the rampant consumerism and monetization of everything having to do with Christmas, and not the godless heathens (like me) who don't believe in celebrating the birth of Jesus.

On the other hand, the crusaders against Christmas are tragically repulsed by, and rail against, the appearance of a lone Christmas tree at city hall, artfully designed nativity scenes in malls and the singing of Christmas carols by children in schools. 

I completely understand the unease of those who feel religious prayers should not be conducted in public schools and imposed on all, regardless of their religious belief. I, unconditionally, support the removal of religious symbols in almost all public spaces - the judiciary, municipal, provincial and federal offices, etc ...

Here is the secularist Annie Laurie Gaylor's triumphant crowing when she and fellow believers (or is that non-believers?) managed to have a nativity scene banned from Palisades Park in Santa Monica:
They [the secularists] showed the Christian people of the city what it feels like to have a public park promoting views that offend your personal conscience. These views were on public property that were supposed to be owned equally by everyone.
I agree somewhat and yet ... I can't help thinking what [fill in the indefinite article and  expletive of your choice].

Christmas has taken a distinctly non-religious character for many Canadians, newly arrived immigrant or long established citizen. In an on-line poll conducted by Abacus Data in December, 2011 of 1,004 respondents who were asked if they celebrate Christmas - no fewer than 86% in any given demographic category (and as high as 97% in one category) said that they did celebrate it - regardless of gender, age, province/region, religious affiliation, status as an immigrant or education.

I suspect that many of us do not necessarily celebrate the birth of Jesus - we celebrate something else, a tradition of being with family, gift sharing and charity. As one smart ass noted recently on facebook: "Just 'cause I say 'Merry Christmas' doesn't mean I worship Jesus." Indeed not.

But say we do try and eliminate all vestiges of Christmas from public life ... why stop there? Why not remove all religious paintings from publicly funded art galleries, forbid the singing of Christmas carols on the street and public spaces, halt all St. Valentine's, Easter and St. Patrick's Day celebrations in public schools, all holidays that clearly have a historical, religious Christian origin? No Valentines shared between schoolmates. No Easter egg hunts at school. No images of floppy Easter bunnies bearing chocolate eggs. No images of shamrocks or leprechauns.

But wait ... why not abolish Family Day in Ontario too? Doesn't that discriminate against some people? "What if you don't have a family?" one hapless female whined to me when it was announced that we would have a civic holiday in February named Family Day. Why ... were you raised by wolves? I wanted to ask. She was miffed by the name of the day. Okay, let's call it "Do whatever the heck you want day." Feel better now, girlie?

What a soulless, boring, fastidiously politically correct existence that would be ... to wipe out all the charming little rituals and customs that have a religious origin because some of us are alienated by Christianity (or any other religion or concept). Why eliminate that which is beautiful, charming, fun and artful - the sacred music and Christmas songs, the iconic visual art of the season, the nativity scenes, the Christmas fables for children, the sharing of wonderful treats particular to the Christmas season - because it may offend or is not in accordance with our own particular religious views?

This draconian perspective that requires that we eliminate all that potentially offends or alienates from public life will have a much larger, deleterious effect - it will destroy the goodwill and intentions of those who do not wish to offend, who are not bigoted, but merely wish to celebrate a Canadian tradition - because, yes, Christmas has become for many a Canadian tradition not a religious one, irrespective of one's faith. It's embedded in our culture and history. It's a part of our culture. Canadian culture.

Please, remove that which is racist, ugly and distasteful in society ... oppose intolerance everywhere, in every instance, but does Christmas really fall into that category?

Sunday, November 30, 2014

November Cultural Roundup


Books

The Marriage Plot by  Jeffrey Eugenides
The Hotel on Place Vendome: Life, Death, and Betrayal at the Hotel Ritz in Paris
     by Tilar J. Mazzeo
The Children Act by Ian McEwan

Friday, October 31, 2014

October Cultural Roundup


Michael Keaton and his doppelganger in Bird Man
Books
My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff 
James Joyce by Edna O'Brien 
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman 
The Second Plane - September 11: Terror and Boredom by Martin Amis

Films
Gone Girl (U.S., 2014)  
Bird Man (U.S., 2014) 

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Mother's Story

His face, a flower - sunlit, flooded with a beauty that blinds me. 

A Mother's Story by Gloria Vanderbilt (Penguin Group, 1997) 148 pages

A mother's love has an irresistible pull for me. A child who is lost to suicide is a devastating blow. This is a love letter to that child, to the family that bore that child. I sometimes wonder why I am drawn to such intense material but, in a manner, I find it profoundly cathartic. 

Carter Cooper, son of Glori Vanderbilt and Wyatt Cooper, seemed blessed at birth - handsome, intelligent with a winning, sensitive personality. And affluent ... no child could have had a more fortuitous beginning. But as every mother of an afflicted child knows, physical circumstances and the love of those around you cannot save you from the demons within. Ms. Vanderbilt watched her son Carter leap to his death from the the 14th story balcony of their NYC apartment. How one recovers from that boggles the mind.

The cause of the suicide is disturbingly unclear. Was it a reaction to his asthma medicine? She
Gloria with Carter 
and Anderson
scours medical research to try and determine this. Was he in a deep sleepwalking state, as his mother sadly conjectures? The final act was so uncharacteristic, it confounded the many who loved him. If it was some sort of mental illness or depression (he had just broken up with his girlfriend), Ms. Vanderbilt gives no hint of it or it remained well hidden by Carter himself.

But the book is more than a memorial to her son.  It is a melancholic paean to a lost time when the family was whole. Ms Vanderbilt's husband Wyatt Cooper died in 1977, her son in 1988. Her second son, the journalist and broadcaster Anderson Cooper, is the last member of her immediate family from this marriage (she also has two older sons).

The reader sees the yearning in Vanderbilt to build and maintain a family by one who lost her father as a toddler and was estranged from her mother for much of her life. She was famously fought over by her biological mother and her paternal aunt (the aunt won). That story has been immortalized in Little Gloria ... Happy at Last.

She is really a remarkable person - spiritual, positive, loving and open to the joys and vicissitudes of life.

An anecdote:
Two or three years ago, a friend invited me to a dinner celebrating the Carter V. Cooper/Exile Short Fiction Competition in Toronto. My friend was a finalist in the competition and generously purchased tickets for a group of us to attend the dinner. Two tables in front of me sat Gloria Vanderbilt - looking beautiful if fragile. Someone asked where Ms. Vanderbilt was sitting. Another guest pointed expectantly to a venerable white haired lady at the head table who appeared to be in her seventies. Nope, I replied - it's that sexy, red haired lady in front of us at the head table. She was beautifully made up and seemed rather sweet if subdued. I loved that she had named this prize after her son whom she felt had great promise as a writer.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

About desire, unrequited and otherwise


People are more than you think they are. 
And they're less as well. 

The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham (Harper Collins, 2014) 255 pages
***SPOILER ALERT***

In many ways this is a book about desire, unrequited and otherwise. Cunningham glides easily, and deliciously, between depicting heterosexual and gay desire in an effortless manner ... a talent he demonstrated in the celebrated novel The Hours and the more recent By Nightfall both of which I enjoyed a great deal.

This is a tale of two brothers and how, and why, they love. The book begins on the cusp of the 2004 Presidential elections (the election's significance is unclear except it perhaps demonstrates Tyler's rabid dislike of Bush and his ilk). Barrett, the younger one, is more cerebral and unsuccessful in love. Tyler is older, in love with Beth who is on the verge of death with a terminal illness, and he is a closeted drug addict hooked on coke. 

Both brothers are unlucky in various ways. Yale-educated Barret works in a high end retailer as a sales clerk and is so broke he is forced to move in with his brother and his fiancee in Bushwick, a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn. Tyler, an unsuccessful musician with an on again off again musical career, struggles to write a love song for his bride to be at their wedding. 

Tyler is dream-filled, romantic, passionate about politics and his feelings for Beth who appears to be recovering from a serious illness for a brief time but then succumbs. He's intense, demanding, politically astute, somewhat lost.

Barrett is smart but intellectually and financially under-employed and at loose ends. He is haunted by a vision of a green light he spotted above Central Park as the novel begins. He doesn't know what it means (nor do we - does it hearken back to Gatsby's green light at the end of Daisy's dock?). He is unnerved enough by it that he tells very few what he saw. It haunts him but it also haunts the novel - what can it signify?

Into this circle of friends enter Liz and Andrew, a May/December romance with the 50 something Liz, a successful businesswoman who owns the shop that Barrett works in, managing the relationship and the 20 something Andrew with one eye to the inevitable end of the affair. Liz desires Andrew but see no long lasting relationship in the future.

Barrett, too, covets the glamorously young Andrew surreptitiously but the closest he comes to Andrew is snorting Tyler's hidden stash of coke at a New Year's eve party with Andrew.
 
And, not surprisingly, there is a sort of unrequited love that a younger brother (Barrett) feels for an older brother (Tyler), whom Barrett perceives to be superior. Barrett yearns for his brother emotionally and possibly physically. Tyler is unattainable in many ways, the object o of love and some resentment.

Beth does not survive (spoiler alert) and the brothers move out of their shabby apartment once Tyler makes a minor splash with an indie hit on YouTube. Liz breaks up with Andrew. Both Barrett and Tyler find love, or lust, of sorts. But the circle is broken and will not be formed in quite the same way again.

Surprisingly, I found at least three spelling errors in this book - I say surprisingly because Harper Collins is a publishing giant and Cunningham a major American writer. 

Literate, witty, passionate, what's not to love about Cunningham? But I am unsure what to make of this novel. Cunningham is a beautiful writer; however, his intent is obscure here despite the beautiful prose. Sometimes that works for the reader, I'm not sure it does here.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

September Cultural Roundup

Wigg and Hader in The Skeleton Twins 
Films
Dead Poets Society (U.S., 1989)
The F Word (U.S., 2014) 
Good Will Hunting (U.S., 1997)  
Gomorrah (Italy, 2014)
The Riot Club (U.K., 2014)  
Mr. Turner (U.K., 2014) 
Foxcatcher (U.S., 2014)
The Imitation Game (U.K., 2014)  
Far from Men (France, 2014) 
The 50 Year Argument (U.S., 2014)
Here's where I leave you (U.S., 2013)
Leopardi (Italy, 2014)
Breathe (France, 2014) 
A Little Chaos (U.K., 2014)
The Skeleton Twins (U.S., 2014)

Books:
The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham
Let us compare mythologies by Leonard Cohen
Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez
A Mother's Story by Gloria Vanderbilt

Exhibits:
Vivian Maier: Photographs of Children, Stephen Bulger Gallery
Flash Forward Incubator Program, featuring the work of RHSA and ESA students, Twist Gallery, September 3 - 26, 2014 

Literary & Readings:
Descant's Berlin Launch at the Goethe Institut, September 19, 2014 
Word on the Street, September 21st, 2014

Sunday, September 14, 2014

TIFF 2014: A Little Chaos


A Little Chaos (U.K., 2014) directed by Alan Rickman, 116 minutes, Scotiabank, 9a 

Up early Sunday morning to see the last film on our list!

Kate Winslet plays Madame Sabine de Barra, described as a "revolutionary gardener" who created a rock garden at the Palace of Versailles in the mid 17th c. for Louis XIV, also known as the Sun King. Commissioned to do the work by the king’s chief architect André Le Notre, Winslet never disappoints as the strong-willed Sabine de Barra; however, the film does. Immensely.

The focus of the film is off ... why should we care about the creation of the King's rock garden (she said, echoing the laments of millions of angry peasants approximately one hundred years later during the French Revolution). It's not important how the garden was achieved but what de Barra had to face as woman to achieve this position of prestige and honour. Very little is made of her unusual role as a female landscape designer. Instead, Rickman as the co-writer and director (and starring as the Sun King himself), focuses too much on palace intrigues and infidelities.

How did she achieve this role? What were the impediments? Was it a family enterprise that she inherited? Doesn't it merit investigation besides a raised eyebrow from two badly costumed (and wigged) bit players who scorn her?

The architect Le Notre (played rather woodenly by he Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts) immediately clashes with de Barra; she values "a little chaos" in her design; he worships symmetry. However, they proceed with the project. Of course, they succeed and there is very little drama to deflect from their succeeding.

Rickman plays the Sun King in full on Snape-like disdain and pageantry. He is becoming "a type", a very unappealing one. Where is that emotional, intense actor we saw, what seems like a hundred years ago, in Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990)? Of course, this is a very different role but if he could express a bit more than bored disdain in his film roles ... that would help the film tremendously. 

Le Notre's wife (Helen McCrory), suspecting her husband of infidelity, tries to sabotage the project; the king loses a Spanish born noble wife he barely seems to care for; de Barra has a vivid flashback about the death of her husband and child which she blames on herself - but even that is strangely passionless. There is little to pull you forward in the narrative. 

I love Winslet, she can do no wrong for me. But the whole feel of the production felt second rate - the costumes, the sets, the wigs, the jewelry, and ... the dialogue. It's difficult to write dialogue that is neither too stilted (apropos of the mid 17th c.) or too anachronistic (hello Stanley Tucci as the King's gay brother, the Duke Phillipe). 

~

Last film of the festival for us ... it was a good year! So many good films and now the films for grownups season begins in September in anticipation of the Oscar noms. Bring it on!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

TIFF 2014: Breathe


Breathe (Respire) (France, 2014) directed by Mélanie Laurent, 91 minutes, Scotiabank 9, 9.15a

The mean girl preying on the innocent good girl is by now a staple of modern cinema and drama. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' 1792 novel Les Liaisons dangereuses any one?

Seventeen year old Charlie (Joséphine Japy), a moderately unhappy highschool student whose parents are separating, is soon enraptured by a new student - the pretty and provocative Sarah (Lou deLaâge) and her tales of life in Africa where her mother supposedly works in an NGO.

Sarah has all the cliched cinematic hallmarks of a bad girl - sexy clothes and demeanor, inappropriate behavior, provocative language, an attractively defiant attitude. She quickly draws Charlie away from her best friend Victoire. She charms adults and Charlie's friends. They share secrets and cigarettes and intimacy - dancing, sharing clothes, smoking up, talking about boys.

The unsavory change in Sarah's behavior is telegraphed many scenes before. When Charlie rebels in any manner against Sarah and learns an unpleasant secret about Sarah's family, Sarah begins a campaign of intimidation. She begins to covet Charlie's mom's love interest, reveals her secrets to Charlie's friends, taunts and humiliates her. 

This escalates into vicious rumours, verbal bullying, open harassment, physically roughing up Charlie, and, endless phone calls to her cell phone. The script, also written by the actor/director Melanie Laurent best known for her role in Inglourious Basterds, does not chart new territory here.

Even if Sarah appears the prototypical mean girl gone sociopath, the film is redeemed by Sarah's response. It is unexpected and brutal although not wholly surprising. Talk about girls gone wild ...

Friday, September 12, 2014

TIFF 2014: Leopardi


Leopardi: Il giovane favoloso (Italy, 2014) directed by Marco Martone, 137 minutes, Isabel Bader Theater, 8p

Count Giacomo Leopardi, the poet and essayist born in 1798, is perhaps not as widely known as Dante but surely has written some of the most beautiful poetry in Italian that the world has seen. 

We lived ... And as a phantom from a dream of terror
Wanders into the day,
And draws across the speechless souls of children
A memory and a fear,
We, as we linger here,
Are haunted still by life: but fears of children
Haunt us not now. What were we?
What was that bitter point in time
That bore the name of life? 
from Chorus of the Dead 

Leopardi (Elio Germano), an aristocrat, was surrounded by a loving but constricting family. Seriously ill all of his life, he eventually became a hunchback and was frequently debilitated by his fragile health. Educated by his father and through the immense library that his father built in their home, Leopardi eventually had to flee his father's suffocating presence.

Brilliant but lonely, Leopardi forges relationships with mentors and scholars such as Pietro Giordani (Valerio Binasco) to escape the confines of Recanati, his small town in northern Italy. It is Giordani and the writer Antonio Ranieri (Michele Riondino) whose friendships largely release Leopardi from his emotional and financial ties to his family.

Germano, as Leopardi, is, by turns, proud, lonely, lustful, fearful - whether surreptitiously watching with longing the peasant girl working on her loom next door, flailing against his autocratic father who prevents his departure from home many times, or slowly withering physically as he ages but gaining in power as a poet and observer of the human condition.

He came to reside in Naples, on the slope of Mount Vesuvius in the latter part of his life, and must have witnessed its many volcanic eruptions before his death in 1837. The final shot of the Vesuvius volcano overflowing is an apt metaphor for the passions that fueled this man.