When we watch a neo-realist film by Roberto Rossellini or Alberto Lattuada, a swashbuckler epic, Marlon Brando as an ancient Roman in a white toga in “Julius Caesar” (1953) or footage of the world just a few short weeks ago, we’re not really doing anything that different.
These are all worlds that no longer exist; we observe them with sympathy, condescension, or admiration—but we observe them through a window, from a transformed world. The fact is that we are all now waiting, with trepid hope, to find out whether the world we still see in commercials, films, public performances and stages is still ours.
Yesterday’s world is still with us, we are still there, we still want to be there. We see the deserted streets of the Western world, in cities like Milan, Rome and Paris, and here where I am in Jerusalem, and think of them as they used to be just a short while ago. Rosario Fiorello, one of Italy’s most famous comedians, exclaims, “We’ll meet again. Come on, let’s do it. I’ll be there.” These words are sweet—only now, we can’t. The TV commercials we still watch show us birthday parties with loved ones, festive homecomings and reunions with friends and family, crowded football matches, political protests, etc. All are now banished from our lives.
The crowds in Rubens’ allegories, Francois Joseph Heim’s inaugurations or Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Dance at the Moulin de la Galette (1876)—crowds, customs and conceptions that once were. We see this all torn apart. It’s us, but it’s not us. We hope that world will return to us, but for now we have these four walls, these few people or none, and uncertainty as to what the future may hold.
More or less 8,500 years before Christ, when the gleaner of wild wheat was replaced by the farmer amid the Neolithic Revolution, Jericho was one of the first settlements. Progress brought with it great numerical growth and many grains, but infant mortality increased dramatically. People made plans, built, and then hope was dashed due to excessive growth vis-à-vis wheat production. Man refused for a long time to understand what needed to be changed, epidemics were common, but ultimately developments in agriculture and, in the end, in humanity occurred. Man understood where he stood, and changed.
We, too, are stuck on our spoiled and hopeful selves before the coronavirus outbreak: The family, demoralized by the idea of its inevitable decline, now finds itself instead indispensable. Meanwhile, the costs of loneliness are on display; the health-care systems basic to society require, instead, doctors and nurses to be individual heroes. The elderly, protagonists of childless societies like Italy, are in great danger, because it’s impossible to cure them all.
The promise of long life the contemporary world has put so much effort into seems suddenly uncertain. Movement, the color and noise of travel, are gone for the moment. Yesterday’s necessity is today’s luxury. Israel at least has a sense of how hard survival is and how much unity, generosity and, yes, obedience it can require, but while it may take time, the rest of the world will have to learn this lesson. There is courage in the homes where so many are currently confined, yes in Israel but also in my faraway Italy, where so many now suffer; when they see the faded film of how we were, they shrug their shoulders and move on.
Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies. She served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including “Israel Is Us” (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.