Chapter 24: Terza Madre
The last time I saw il Maestro was just before the death of the last Pope back in 2005. Rome was languishing in the grip of a greenhouse spring, the skies opening over the eternal city as if heaven itself were sinking and all the angels frantically bailing out water to somehow stay afloat. The Trevi fountain was not much good for postcards anymore, the Sistine chapel was closed for the duration and the Colliseum, where Cellini had once met that mysterious Sicillian sorceror, was now a shallow lake.
We snuck into Dario's office early one morning with the collusion of his brother Claudio, giving Mr. Horn the time to light the suite in faux Suspiria primary colors, while I manned the camera and Simon Boswell took care of sound. We were already rolling by the time Dario opened the door and the young actress, Miss Maggie Moor, who was hidden behind him, reached out to place a gloved hand on his shoulder. It was only the lightest of touches, but when he turned and saw her veiled figure hovering over his shoulder, he gasped, and I'm proud to say we actually got a spontaneous jump out of him on camera. Maybe he thought it was Asia or someone or something else behind that treble veil of crepe, but for a moment, for little more than a second, he looked actually scared. Then Miss Moor laughed and il maestro caught sight of our lens, regaining his composure as he realized he was on the Shadow Theatre equivalent of candid camera.
But for a beat we actually had him!
Later he picked us up from our suite at the Hotel Astrid, the location for The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and treated us to a lavish multi-course banquet at his favourite bistro. He was officially preparing La Terza Madre, The Third Mother, or The Mother of Tears, the third and final part of the trilogy, and it was our job to look in and haunt him just a little, to download recent war stories and offer whatever support and encouragement he might have needed.
To this day, I do not feel any would-be reviewer has truly understood the man or his work. His ouvre exists outside the traditional conventions of the genre and has to be approached on its own terms. His critics and supporters rely all too often on the blunt tools of traditional pyschoanalysis, searching for underlying traumas and hinting time and again at his work’s inherent misogyny, yet the glory of Dario's canon is that these pathological impulses were never repressed to begin with. Say what you will of the man, but he was and always will be one of the most painfully, at times embarrassingly, honest filmmakers to have lived and breathed. His psychological dirty linen was openly displayed from the very off, his fears and desires foregrounded for all to see, while something very strange and very different lurked in the background, barely hidden in the wallpaper, literally between the walls and beneath the soles of our shoes requiring audiences and critics to abandon conventional logic and adopt an altogether more Jungian approach.
I don't think even Dario himself knows what's really hidden beneath the peeling art deco wallpaper of his unconscious, or how those things quite came together the way they did in his dreams, but like it or not, the man enlarged my mind. While some fans obviously get off on the unhealthier aspects of his material - the violence, misogyny, incest, anorexia and foreground body horror - that was never the point, only the window dressing, the aesthetic superstructure, a magician's trick deliberately misdirecting us from what was really going on.
I was a cynic and an atheist when I first set foot in the Scala cinema all those years ago, and without me even realizing it Dario offered me a way out of the darkness, a key to help make sense of the world that had been handed down to me. My ex-girlfriend Kate had once lobbed a copy of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage at me, claiming that it was 'Exactly the kind of shit' she 'didn't need' in her life, but I had found more spiritual truth in those lurid, weird-ass, garlic-flavored horror shows than in all the grimoires and holy books I'd ever forced myself to try and read. For better or worse, they made me what I am today and when all is said and done, I think I've made a pretty decent fist of my life and the limited opportunities available to me. No matter what happens now or what becomes of us, Dario has always been a constant friend, a true ally and the best goddam surrogate father a prodigal son could have hoped to find.
We had all hoped back in the 80's that Mario Bava's son Lamberto might mature to inherit Dario's mantle, and after it became apparent he lacked his vision and tenacity, we looked to Michele Soavi to carry the tradition forward into the new century, but again our hopes were dashed when the budding young director took early retirement to care for his own ailing son. If Mother of Tears was to be not only Argento's swansong, but the death knell for the Italian Gothic as a continuing cinematic tradition, then it made sense for him to take this last chance to make peace with his shattered family and repair the web of time where it had been broken, to bow out with Daria and Asia at his side.
I think we both knew that what he was intending amounted to a kind of career suicide, a grande finale destined to bring the house down. It was a story only he could tell, although I told him everything I could in the hope that he might find something he could use, that some small part of my experience could shed a little light on the Three Mothers' dark domain.
I had only a day earlier been in a tiny Umbrian hamlet named Narni, ostensibly scouting locations for Imago Mortis, an unproduced screenplay taking off on one of the central conceits from Four Flies ('thanatography' - ie: the use of dead people to take pictures, not conventional photographs, but three-dimensional 'thanatographs'), but effectively still pursuing the elusive trail of the Three Mothers.
Recent repair work on a damaged aqueduct had revealed an ancient Dominican torture chamber walled up beneath the village streets, its sadistic apparatus and terrifying frescoes hermetically preserved since the dark days of the inquisition and there, on the inner surfaces of the cell doors, I found the graffiti left by the prisoners, the unfortunate heretics who had lived out their final days in that lightlless hellhole, geometric markings already familiar to me from the walls of the Lombrives, including that inevitable telltale arachnid, the sign of the ellusive Tarantula Cult, that had guided me slowly but inevitably back to the very centre of the web, to Rome and the gates of the Vatican itself.
Our conversation that night concerned what lay beneath Saint Peter’s Square and the current whereabouts of the original meteoric icon, surely indestructable by torch or the ravages of time itself, the Roman Sibyl that had presided over our dreams and seemingly guided our actions from the very off. I had written a lengthy treatment based on the theme from which I draw the title of this text, Lachrymae, concerning the murder of an American actress during a freak thunderstorm in Saint Peter's Square. A subsequent investigation by the dead girl's twin sister and a hard-boiled but hopelessly conflicted Roman copper uncover not only a pagan sect operating within the walls of the eternal city, but ultimately the existence of the Mother of Tears herself, yet on rereading the final draft, I realized the document said more about myself than it did about my master and accordingly, it remained in the filing cabinet where it belonged.
Il Maestro had started this thing and now it was up to him to end it the way it had begun. Where our thoughts dovetailed will be readily apparent to viewers of this latest, typically troubling and predictably problematic work, yet for now I will say no more of La Terza Madre - The Mother of Tears, nor will I divulge its further secrets, partly out of respect for its auteur but most of all out of the sincere desire that you, the audience, should be allowed to come to it on its own terms and interpret it as you will, with fresh eyes and open minds.
We talked late into the night and il Maestro spoke with eloquence and passion, evidently grateful for the chance to unburden himself and at length, tiring of the subject, he turned to more personal matters, to the wider world beyond our work in the genre, to the long unseen radical anti-authoritarian documentaries of his youth. I had managed to use what limited visibility I had in the genre to place a sampling of my own non-fiction work before the public eye, and Dario couldn't help but wish a little wistfully he could do the same, that he could somehow escape the genre he had made his own and return to his roots, to the shaggy anarchic idealism that motivated his early experiments in cinema, only to lie dormant after the crushing box-office reception of his sole attempt at political satire, his atypical and all but forgotten black comedy The Five Days of Milan. Although of scant interest to his countless fans, I do not doubt that it is this early documentary work that il maestro ultimately recalls most fondly and considers his most purely personal work. I can only hope that some day he realizes his dream to remaster the material and place it before the wider public.
He was looking stronger and healthier, filling a little now that he had finally gotten his appetite back and if not entirely at peace with the world, had at least come to terms with his position in it. He was sleeping regularly and deeply and had finally given up smoking, but had he given up on the strange, murderous passions that had made him my maestro to begin with? Even if he had, I could see from the way he bantered with Miss Moor, forcing her to close her eyes while he fed her strips of tripe ('a Roman delicacy') for hors deuves, that he hadn't yet given up on women and no matter how settled he was feeling as an artist, love and its attendant miseries were doubtless still waiting somewhere in the rainstreaked darkness to mug him all over again, and those fearful muses to season his heart with fresh and deeper pains, so that he might once more be accomplished in the furnace and see and convey those things that ought not to be seen by any 'sane' or 'rational' being, sights that are abominable and secrets unutterable.
Elder truths. Fearful truths. Sad truths. Grand truths. Thus is the task of the three mothers, accomplished to plague Man's heart until they have unfolded the capacities of his spirit.
Epilogue: The Key to the treasure
I was looking for divinity, yet I find myself at the gates of Hell. Still I may continue to walk, to fall, even in flames. If there exists a way towards Heaven then it crosses Hell. At least it does for me. Well then... I dare!
- SS Obersturmfuhrer Otto Wilhelm Rahn
Since embarking on this shaggy dog story, I have returned twice to Montsegur and found myself back on Rahn's trail with a vengeance, a process only marginally slowed by my own contribution to the mythos of the dark Goddess finally going into pre-production.
Since my last visit to Rennes les Chateau, the one restaurant in town, the 'Blue Apple' had been mysteriously burned to the ground and the shadowy 'Association' had taken control of the domain and forced Marcel to give up the cherished keys to the church. Celia took it all in her stride having bigger fish to fry. She had married Marcel and was pursuing her claim to the throne of Sarawak with some success. For the first time, she had begun to consider moving away from the plateau and dreamed of an airy long house somewhere in the tropics, where she might live out her days surrounded by her beloved Dayaks. Dagobert, the mountain dog, had sadly passed while Grace had moved to Paris and was a mother herself now, her son, Leandro, apparently named after the Telly Savalas character from 'Lisa and the Devil'. Given his heritage, I suspect he has a long and interesting life before him. The right-wing mayor is sadly still very much in charge of the town, although his attempts to enforce some kind of order have thankfully made little headway against the demented status quo.
Amateur treasure hunters still chip away at the church's leaky foundations and Danielle is still wearing a dress and massproduces ever more detailed and complex treasure maps, having developed a winning passion for cutting and pasting the covers of Italian horror DVDs and leaving them hanging from surrounding trees and fences as helpful clues to the initiated and warnings to the unwary.
Danielle's work has been getting more and more detailed over the years, but the appearance of the Italian horror material is a recent development. I suppose its reassuring to know that at least one other person out there seems to have figured out that the real problem with Rennes is that the town is built over one of Fulci's 'seven dreaded gateways.'
The exqusite choice of titles indicates that not only does Danielle have a thorough working knowledge of the genre, but considerable insight into the deep history of the area. The copy of Fulci's Beatrice Cenci, under its French release title The Passion of Beatrice, is a 'metatextual' gag par excellence... Beatrice, of course, accompanied Dante during his journey to Hell, where among other sinners, he encounters his own mentor, Guido Cavalcanti, who had been responsible for initiating the young poet into a heretical secret society known as the 'Brotherhood of the Faithful in Love', which traced its lineage back to the Nicetas himself, widely seen as the founding father of the so-called 'cathar' faith...
Dante studied the lost tongue of the vanquished nation (Romans) and seems to have coined the term 'Lingua Occitania' in his treatise De Vulgai Eloquentia in 1305, from whence we draw our name for what is now the southern most province of modern France - the Languedoc. In its original usage 'Oc' was simply 'Yes' in Romans, the equivalent of 'Oui' or 'Si', and the origin of the modern Anglo-Saxon use of 'okay' as an affirmative particle...
All of which connects on more levels that I have time to explain. 'Coincidence' perhaps, but I stumbled across the shrine to Beatrice Cenci on the same day that myself and my travelling companion, world class equestrian, Miss Scarlett Amaris, had gotten back from Ussat and a closer inspection of the natural stone pentagram in the Bethlehem Grotto closely associated with the continuing Rahn enigma. The outlines of a face are still faintly visible beneath the dust on the cave wall, allegedly the 'face of Beatrice', and needless to say, the shallow octagonal depression is rumored to be a 'gateway' of sorts...
The Bethlehem Grotto is so-named because of a natural shaft in the rock, that causes a beam of light to fall on the ancient stone altar before the pentagram on just one day of the year - the 25th of December. Members of Gadal's neo-cathar Rosicrucian movement undergo a three-year period of study, meditation, indoctrination, fasting and general reprogramming before undergoing their final initiation in the pentagram, possibly in the presence of the 'Pyrenean Grail', which, I believe, may be in the movements hands. Since the making of The Secret Glory, the grotto has been haphazardly fenced off by the neo-Cathars, destroying much of the site's natural beauty. Behind locked steel gates excavations continue in secret, yielding a steady trickle of fascinating, often contradictory artefacts.
I labored for some years to pitch a TV sitcom based on the Rennes area and its inhabitants - a format I felt richly suited to the 'cat-in-the-hatty' material - an esoteric hybrid of two British war horses Crossroads and 'Allo 'Allo!, set largely in the foyer of the titular Seven Doors Hotel, which happens to be built over... well, you can guess that part! A recurring character based on Danielle figured heavily in the treatment alongside a motley assortment of thinly disguised Rennes survivors. While the thought of slamming out a couple of low-rent seasons tickled my funny bone, the concept failed to raise any smiles from the powers that be and subsequently remained on the drawing board.
It's never been easy to actively profit from the mystery, as Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh found out when they lost their shirts trying to sue Dan Brown in London's high court over alleged 'similarities' between the Da Vinci Code and their one time 'groundbreaking' bestseller The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, effectively admitting that the whole Sangraal/ Sacred Bloodline was more or less fictional, if not wholly their creation to begin with. Henry Lincoln wisely stayed clear of the legal fallout and still lives in the region of Rennes les Bains, where he ekes a stipend conducting esoteric guided tours for lazy conspiracy theorists, who can't be bothered to come up with a hypothesis of their own.
Regaining undisputed sway over the Domaine certainly doesn't seem to have done Claire Corbu or Antoine much good. I finally succeeded in getting them around the dinner table, but being Ascension Day, all the shops were shut and I was forced to turn to our old friend the Sufi Sheik for help with the ingredients. The Sheik's conviction that he could halt the growth of the cancer cells in his body by injecting ketamine into what he believed to be the tumours would seem to have been borne out, and he is still happily alive and kicking, albeit just a li'l confused about his current identity, having hacked apart the Mettarie door with his Templar Sword so many times during a recent spate of violent 'past life-related episodes', that the local handymen now refuse to take his calls, leaving security at the house on the hill a little wanting.
A deep-frozen experimental Manta Ray scavenged from the former neurochemists freezer, however, provided an adequate main course, fleshed out with local fruit and veg, a cheese selection and the Black Forest gateau we'd saved for the occasion, complete with the requisite chocolate sprinkles. All in all, it slipped down nicely, despite the uneasy, conflicted allegiances of the assembled guests.
Relieved of his formal duties in the graveyard, Marcel had not only found the time to completely redraw his graphic account of the plateau's history, this time boldly filling in the missing details, but had even found a new publisher willing to take on the poisoned chalice. As aforementioned, no one has ever really succeeded in making a dime from the Rennes mystery without losing their lives or their sanity, apart from Dan Brown anyhow, but considering the enigmas track record, I wouldn't rate his chances in the long run. Celia has recently completed a book of her own, her long awaited autobiography Muda Dayang, that I think will come as a true revelation to long-term mystery watchers.
After twenty years of foreplay, it came as something of a disappointment when Celia and Marcel finally dropped the other shoe and simply told us what was really going on. Doubtless their account will be hotly disputed and inevitably overlooked in favor of countless more fanciful, more inherently dramatic theories. It's an old story and a simple one. There are a million other stories just like it drifting through the zone, but I think you will find on further investigation it fits the known facts too snugly to be anything other than the truth.
And it goes like this -
The coded documents found by Antoine and Marcel's granddad in the hollow altar column were written in the 1780's by one of Sauniere's shifty predecessors, the Abbe Antoine Bigou. Among his duties as local priest, Bigou acted as chaplain and confessor to the noble Blanchefort family, who had counted at least one former Templar Grand Master among their illustrious forebears. They were amongst the richest landowners in the area and fearing they would lose everything at the time of the French Revolution, conspired with Bigou to hide their heirlooms and undeclared collateral in the family vault and the catacombs beneath the church itself, where they assumed it would survive the attentions of the rapacious, albeit superstitious Catholic serfs, who had forced the noble line into what they had initially assumed to be temporary exile.
With Boudet's help, Sauniere succeeded in partly decoding Bigou's cipher, only to find that subterranean waters rising from the cavity beneath the plateau had caused subsidence in the ancient vault that communicates with the chapel via that narrow stone staircase I first glimpsed all those years ago. Realizing it would be harder work than he thought, Sauniere was forced to recruit Marie Denarnaud's help and with her aid, they succeeded in retrieving and frittering away a good part of the Blanchefort family's lost fortune.
A continuing suspicion lingers in the area that some part of the hoard still remains hidden in the increasingly unstable foundations, and having gained full and unfettered access to the site in the early 90's, Celia and Marcel had set about the laborious task of pumping out the flooded vaults, only to eventually reach the conclusion that there was nothing left to find. They had since lost control of the Domaine to the 'Association', who were now saddled with a rickety old building with rising damp.
"That's it, huh?"
"Looks that way."
Miss Scarlett shook her head as we bade our hosts farewell.
"It's just... I dunno... a little disappointing, I guess. Too Scooby Doo..."
"So what were you expecting? Like, a space-time portal to beyond infinity would have been great but hardly likely. Ditto the Ark of the Covenant. And that bloodline thing. Human greed is something I can believe in."
"What about those bodies they found in the flowerbed? Who killed them?"
"Collateral damage. I dunno. What does it matter anyhow? It obviously wasn't aliens or little people."
"And that flashlight..."
It was just after three in the morning and the plateau was dark and still, the outline of the Tour Magdala rising before us in the starlight, the windows of the Villa Bethany blind and silent.
"Y'know - the one you found in the cave."
"What about it?"
I froze, sensing a stirring in the shadows at the base of the tower.
"You ever get around to measuring those bite marks?"
"There's something moving down there!"
A scuffling, sliding sound came from out of the dark followed by the unmistakable sound of trickling pebbles.
"The hell is that?"
"Sounds like more than one!"
We stood squinting into the blackness.
"Probably just some deranged treasure hunter having a go at the foundations or Danielle hanging out more Fulci titles to scare the tourists."
"It's not human."
"But it's not. Listen..four legs, not two."
There was a crackle of snapping twigs as one of the prowling shapes cut across the dry brush towards us.
"This place has no cryptozoological history whatsoever. It's not supposed to have a monster..."
"Maybe we should split before we find out."
"It's cool. I've got just the thing. It's never going to be expecting this!"
Slipping the Arctic floodlamp I had purchased in Akuriri for the previous seasons fact-finding excursion to northern Iceland, I flipped it onto full flood, bathing the base of the Tour Magdala in sudden violent wattage. But it didn't seem to surprise whatever was out there or even slow it down.
“That’s not stopping it – they’re still coming and quickly!”
I narrowed my eyes, deciding that it probably wasn't human after all.
"Let's just go, okay?"
Brandishing the floodlamp defensively I started back across the parking lot towards the car.
Big bugger. Some of 'em striations have gotta be at least three inches...
+++++++++++++++ TRANSMISSION ENDS
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