Steven Spielberg, with “The Fabelmans” (2022), tells the story of the second half of the twentieth century in the United States, through the eyes of a Jewish family, between love affairs, a training trip and cinema. The Maestro, at 75, wonders about two opposite loves: career/family. Which one to choose?
If he were still alive, The Fabelmans (2022) by Steven Spielbergwould have liked to Francois Truffaut (who was born ninety years ago and passed away too young, at 52). For the first time the history of cinema shows us the love of a child, then a teenager and, again, a young university student, who grows up among the zigzagging folds of life, cultivating a love for cinema, not only as a spectator but also as an author. The long filmography of metacinema is enriched thanks to Spielberg’s latest story (written together with Tony Kushner) built on a subject with an autobiographical base, and intertwines, in alternating editing, the loves of a family, with the training journey of a boy through the seventh art.
The Fabelmans family is made up of the young father Burt (the calibrated naïve Paul Dano) among the forerunners of proto-cybernetics at General Motors, an equally charming young wife, Mitzi (the polyphonic Michelle Williams), talented pianist who chooses family over career; and four children, including Sammy (a decided Gabriel LaBelle, filmic cousin of the boy Jean-Pier Leaud), captured from an early age by the magic of cinema. To complete the family table, here is a friend and colleague of the father, whom the little ones call “uncle” Bennie (educated in betrayal, Seth Rogen), secret and happy recipient of much of the load of love that Mitzi is unable to pour on her husband.
The central theme of the film, engine of the dramaturgical mechanism, is the perennial existential struggle between love for art (or work) and love for people (or family). Reason triggered by the old maternal uncle, Boris (he seems to have come out of one of those surreal stories alla Juraj Jakubisko: it’s the plastic Judd Hirsch), a former circus performer, visiting the Fabelmans. Addressed to Sammy: “Either you love people or art. Either the cinema or the family. You must choose. (…) I put my head in the lion’s mouth. The skill was to do it when the lions didn’t close their mouths”.
Spielberg is irresistibly attracted by the Kierkegaardian either/or. An existential challenge that intercepts the lives of many of us, to which we respond with different solutions, i.e. choices. How many reproach themselves for not having followed their “own talent” to devote themselves to others? Conversely, how many “loving” their work, “too much”, have eroded the affection towards others, and have been accused, perhaps wrongly, of “selfishness”?
The Fabelmans family, of Jewish origin, which we followed from the 1950s to the 1970s, between New Jersey, Arizona and California, will disarticulate: everyone will follow their own loves, sentimental or professional. Mitzi will leave the family to “help” Bennie, remained in Phoenix. Burt, without hard feelings, with a sad smile, will accept it. In order to make a concrete contribution to the development of technology, he decides instead to stay in Hollywood, with Sammy. These, one day, we are in the subfinal, leave the university to work in the cinema.
The Fabelmans it is Spielberg’s opportunity to go back to being a historian of the twentieth century following, almost in a documentary way, a group in an interior. Here he deals with the first half of the second part of the 20th century. The Italian spectator discovers that paper tablecloths and plastic cutlery arrived in the USA in the 1950s; that in the colleges there was a violent hazing (today it is called bullying) exercised on newcomers, especially if they were Jewish; that some Catholic adolescents, badly educated in religion, could appear exaggerated. (But – fall in style – giving the idea of Catholics, as fanatical and ridiculous, through the parody of the seventeen-year-old Monica – the good Cloe East -, with which Sammy becomes infatuated, appears dissonant with the poetics of an author who demands respect for Judaism).
The cinematographic references are different: from The greatest show in the world (1952, by Cecil B. DeMille), first film seen by little Sammy with his parents at the cinema, to the indirect mention of The Great Robbery Train (1903, by ES Porter), through one of the “experimental” shorts, in super8, shot by Sammy, with friends. Spielberg intends to make today’s young people, who “go around” with their mobile phones, aware of the fascinating history of film, of non-professional cameras, up to the Arriflex 16mm. But he also hints at the art of directing (“don’t look into the camera!” the young director orders his actor and extras friends) and of editing, the latter rendered by Spielberg with a clever cheat (in the first film Sammy is not seen filming the derailment of the toy train from several points of view, as it later results in the “assembled”).
Some scenes of family life show a Fellini-like delicacy: the visit of the elderly, bewildered but wise uncle Boris, a circus expert; Mitzi’s dance, with her erotic silhouette drawn by the backlight of the headlights inside a transparent long white camisole, during the night picnic; or the finale, that meeting of Sammy with an empathetic and curmudgeon John Ford (a believable David Lynch) in his office, which closes his training journey with the very short lesson on the filmic aesthetics of the horizon (take note).
We go home happy for having seen the dream of a stubborn teenager come true, helped, in moments of doubt, also by the one who messed up the Pascoli family nest (Bennie); serene for having witnessed a story of a family that ends with an (apparently) peaceful divorce. The only doubt, of a psychological nature, is on the ethical opposition career/affections, dear to the wise Spielberg: we are sure that it must be the latter who give in in favor of talent or work, without damaging the relationship with the other and causing the subject any indelible scars?