Sixty days have gone by since the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Italy. That was on February 20, a stumbling block on our calendar, a watershed date that reminds us of the moment when the extraordinary first became ordinary and everyday life increasingly took on the overtones of a punishment inflicted without any sentence first being passed.
That date first made us familiar with the disquieting headlines, the tragic numbers of the news bulletins and with measures and calls for containment that have become the thermometer of the country’s civil conscience.
We can say when it all started and one day we will also be able to say when it ended. There will be a before and an after coronavirus, but the interim — this present moment protracted for two months — how are we to describe it? What is this present like, with its tedium and questioning and private sorrows that remain unexpressed?
It is morning, and Milan is deserted, unrecognizable. Piazza del Duomo, the Galleria and Corso Vittorio Emanuele, once bustling with all their familiar details, are now desolate and alien, just as we feel alien in our own homes.
The places of our private lives, where we live and preserve the deepest part of ourselves with proud jealousy, now have the ambivalent feeling of simultaneously being a refuge and a prison. Within homes that preserve and foreclose us, our lives inch forward, suspended between a newscast and a video call, a workout and a drink in front of a monitor, between a family dinner and the search for something to read. Something to sustain us when our own company becomes tedious.
But then comes the sudden wailing of an ambulance that stops right opposite our house and a neighbour is urgently taken off to hospital. This reduces our complaints to the rank of tantrums and reminds us there’s a world out there where doctors and nurses are gowned and masked to save lives, where tears are choked back in solitude and separations experienced as if on trial and awaiting sentence. “We’re used to emergencies, to some of the worst things, but we’re not used to all this,” says Matteo, an emergency paramedic. He then adds “It’s an experience that makes you realize every second of your life is crucial.”
It’s the same world, the same country, the same region, the same city, but reality now travels in two different time zones. On the one side there’s our time, where seconds stretch into hours, with patience the norm and waiting as a health protocol. On the other there’s the time of the health workers, with hours shrinking to seconds, of a frenzied working method and sacrifice as the norm in their work.
Distanza sociale (“social Distancing”) is a silent, intimate journey that does not seek to resolve doubts or even offer solutions, but to depict this limbo of the experience that has become the proscenium of our lives. “We didn’t want to investigate the virus and the health system. We focused on everyday life to create a portrait as objective and private as possible of the quarantine,” explains Simone Rigamonti, one of the video-makers who developed the project.
“We presented the stories by drawing on what was going on in our homes and at the same time we wanted to add the testimonies of doctors and nurses who never stay home. With them we sought to confront the most personal and delicate aspects of their work. The outcome is a portrayal of common life within the region of Italy worst hit by the coronavirus emergency.”
With a narrative sensibility that shuns pugnacious dialectics or wartime metaphors, it traces a more authentic and truthful portrait of Lombardy than the rhetoric of heroism and sacrifice in the front line could ever do. What it describes is not war, but the everyday reality of people made up of weakness and strength, perseverance and melancholy.
We see this world of ordinary men and women and rediscover ourselves for what we truly are: capable of small gestures that in anonymous solidarity and restrained commitment reveal our concern for others and a silent pragmatism: our solid mainstays against the attrition of resignation and despair.
There is no magniloquence or waste of words. Everyone will find something of themselves in this short film that has the evocative power of a collectively browsed family album with the power to make us feel less alone and more united.
And above all this essay is a message of confidence, since amid the pain it also enables us to feel the pleasure — which we may have lost — in looking ahead to the future. Because the story of our everyday lives, made up of patient common sense and stubborn efforts, is no more than the evidence of a tenacious pride.