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Manglehorn: The Journey of Everyman's Life?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2017-05-26 11:03:55
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In 2014 a movie came out starring Al Pacino, directed by David Gordon Green and co-starring Holly Hunter and Chris Messina, by the title Manglehorn.

This is the kind of movie that can easily be misinterpreted and even misjudged by the critics, as in fact it has been. It has been called a “pathetic uneventful story,” a week in an old reclusive man’s life feeling sorry for himself; sorry that his life is careening toward its end.

This superficial analysis is all true, on the surface, but only on the surface. Underneath all the heartbreaking unromantic pathetic misery of growing old, there is a subtler more exciting story to be discovered by the observant viewer. But in order to do so one may need to exercise some imagination and perhaps even recollect some notions of Italian Literature, as I will endeavor to explain.


Before we proceed with the hidden message, let’s take a look at the surface pathetic plot of this pathetic uneventful story. Angelo Manglehorn is a small town Texas locksmith who lives a reclusive lonely life making keys and unlocking problems of unattainable access to homes or means of transportation.

Angelo is an old man in his seventies, which is the actual age of Al Pacino at the making of the movie. He lives with a cat which is momentarily sick for mysterious reasons. He picks up his mail daily from his mailbox under which there is a bee-hive. He goes to the bank regularly to deposit or take out money and regularly engages in small talk with the bank teller, Dawn, with whom he seems to have a crush. He has a son Jacob whom he sees occasionally but they don’t seem to like each other. He eats miserable meals alone at the local cafeteria and then for fun he plays slots at a shabby casino.

Angelo also writes daily letters to Clara, his lost love of long ago, not his wife, however. Those missives invariably are returned to his mailbox as undeliverable. He has kept this letter writing up for the last twenty years or so. Along with a picture of Clara, the girl the letters are addressed to, he keeps all the returned missives on file in labeled boxes in a lair off his kitchen.

This story is told within the time span of a whole week. It is banal and common to many old men’s stories. There is nostalgia, regret, recrimination, self-pity, helplessness, near-despair. But there is also an almost hidden and largely unexplored subplot about Angelo having magical healing powers. These gifts are alluded to in the movie’s conversations or otherwise evoked in weird almost surrealistic scenes but never clearly spelled out. It seems that Angelo is unable to get out of his own way. That is to say, he is unable to unlock his own self and discover who he really is. He is unable to let go of the past so that he can move on unto future possibilities.

They say that most writers always begins with autobiography as an exploration into the self before they move on stories about future possibilities. Could this be the key to a genuine interpretation of the movie? After all Angelo is a key maker and we soon discover that what has made his cat terribly sick is that he has ingested a key from his store. The key is also central to the last scene of the movie.

But let us continue with the movie’s narration. It is obvious that while Clara, the girl he has lost and to whom he writes faithfully every day, is perfect in every way, the people he has associated in the past and the people around him now are far from perfect; they are downright human and therefore flawed. They are, his wife, now dead, his son, a successful businessman whom he hardly ever sees, and Dawn with whom he starts a romantic relationship which ends badly when he compares her to Clara, thus alienating her from him.


Let’s stay with his gift of healing and the key. Those are important clues to the correct interpretation, but we also need to exercise our imagination and find the key to the opening of the various symbols and surreal realities presented to us in the movie. Some of those symbols are: the beehive as the irritations and obstacles to communication in life, letter writing as a way of conversing with life and clarifying its sudden and confusing events. The surrealism of mime-making which Angelo enjoys in the park with his granddaughter (looking for the innocence of the child within), the key in the cat’s stomach, the obsessive desire for an ideal perfect world (utopia) followed by the despair of not being able to achieve it, the letting go of the balloons as a symbol of the letting go of one’s past, Dawn as the promise of the dawn or new beginnings; last but not least, the power of the mind to heal itself which is portrayed at the end of the movie when the mime throws an imaginary key to him and he is able to open his car with it by the mere manifestation of faith in himself. Before he can do that he has to destroy all the vestiges of the past: the letters, the old house and the old boat, which he actually manages to do.

So one may never achieve perfection but one may achieve self-healing by deciding to go on living not with imaginary perfect people but with real imperfect people, which Angelo also does when he returns to Dawn. Rather than being consumed by the past and its bad choices, he embraces the present and journeys to the future; that is to say, he burns whatever is unnecessary and irrelevant to the present and future and moves on. There is a kind of resurrection occurring before our very eyes.

But there is more to this movie: there is the throw back to Dante which the vast majority of critics have simply missed, perhaps because of their unfamiliarity with Italian Literature. Anybody in some way acquainted with it knows that Dante’s Divine Comedy can be construed as an architype of the journey of life from cradle to tomb. Dante takes a journey in the three after-life realms of hell, purgatory and Paradise. In hell and purgatory he is accompanied by Virgil, an allegory of reason or philosophy, but in heaven he is accompanied by Beatrice Portinari, an allegory of theology.

Beatrice was not Dante’s wife, nor was she his lover, but she was a real person that Dante had known and fallen in love with as a teen-ager and to whom he had dedicated some of the greatest sonnets ever written. She had died at the age of 18 with a rare disease. In Dante’s mind she became “la donna angelicata” or an angelic woman, a saint or almost an angel of God; that is to say she was the perfect woman. Those poems he had written for her were like the letters that Angelo sends Clara on a daily basis. They keep him from despairing and give him the courage to keep going.

The apotheosis comes in the middle of the journey of Dante’s life (“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita” –in the middle of the journey of our lives) when Dante meets her in heaven and she consents to be his guide for the final stretch of his journey: the journey toward the final destination: God.

The allusion to Dante is quite clear in the movie. It comes when Angelo is describing his relationship to Clara to Dawn. He had traveled to Florence with Clara and at three in the morning he was still conversing with her at a café in Piazza della Signoria talking about all kinds of cultural events and artifacts. The conversation was so engrossing that he was not even aware of the time of the day.

At that point Dawn feels humiliated and brought low and leaves the restaurant to which Angelo had taken her. But those who know Dante now understand the reason why Angelo keeps writing useless letters to Clara: it is what keeps him alive, gives him a sense of hope and eventually may immortalize him via art, when he writes a perfect poem or a perfect epic masterpiece, or a masterful movie, as in the case of Al Pacino. What is still missing in Angelo’s life is the decision to stop desiring the perfect woman of the past and begin to live with the imperfect woman of the present. That happens when he finds the key to the manifestation of his self.

Indeed, this is anything but a banal pathetic uneventful story of an old man feeling sorry for himself. It is a story and a movie worthy of a Dante and a Beatrice. I highly recommend it.


Check Dr Emanuel Paparella's EBOOKS
Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers
& Europe Beyond the Euro
You can download them for FREE HERE!

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