“Non son chi fui; perì di noi gran parte:
questo che avanza è sol languore e pianto”Ugo Foscolo, Sonetti, II, 1-2
In celebration of the International Day of People with Disabilities, I would like to mention one of the most iconic movie characters with a disability: Darth Vader. With both his legs and both his arms amputated, he can move only thanks to very sophisticated prosthetic limbs. He also requires constant medical care and would not survive long without his highly technological suit. As Obi-Wan once said about him, he is “more a machine now than a man, twisted and evil.”
The character of Bane, the main villain in Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises”, follows pretty much this same paradigm: he also has a tragic past, he underwent mutilations like Anakin Skywalker, and just like him, he hides them behind a mask, that has also the function of keeping “the pain at bay” (this expression, pronounced by a secondary character in the movie, recalls the name with a reversed assonance: pain at bay, Bane; nomen omen). But while Darth Vader is a representation of totalitarianism (note how he reproduces Mussolini’s gestures in his fists on hips pose, by the way), Bane is more an incarnation of modern terrorism and offers a quite thoughtful insight into the genesis of it. Interestingly, both these epiphanies of evil (“necessary evil”, Bane explains and Darth Vader would probably agree) are very menacing and powerful, despite their physical limitations: the source of their superhuman strength seems to be their monumental rage, continuously nourished by jealousy and by the pain that curses both their consumed souls and their mutilated bodies. It is this hopeless grudge the mysterious engine that makes them more than just ordinary men, it is thanks to it that they can overcome disability. But there is a price to pay, these movies seem to prove: you can feed yourself on this limitless energy only if you turn it into destruction.
The character of Alex Murphy in the 1987 movie Robocop seems also pertinent in this context. He has in common with Darth Vader and Bane the search for vengeance, and that impossible anger that sits on the grave of his grief; but he is the good guy, the hero. Another important difference is that Murphy not only suffered extremely bad physical injuries (he is resuscitated by prosthetics of the whole body: only his brain and some other tissues have been spared by the men who tried to kill him); he also had brain damage, a kind of very pervasive post-traumatic brain injury exacerbated by the very same procedure used to bring him back to life by integrating his nervous system with mechatronic technology. So, Murphy is in a constant struggle for regaining some of the humanity of his previous life. In that sense, he is the most miserable and suffering among these three examples of cinematic disabilities. As Edward Neumeier (the screenwriter) somewhere said: “He [Alex Murphy] will never go back, he is always going to be something different: he is neither a man nor a machine, he is something different; he’s his own creature, maybe”.
It goes without saying that this kind of analysis takes into account only one of the layers these characters are the sum of. In each one of them, disability and mechanical replacement of their previous organic being is a metaphor for something lacking or gone in their soul, a deficiency in their humanity. But this is another story.
Disability does not necessarily make you a better person. On the contrary. When you meet a person with an important chronic health issue that precludes a normal life, consider that he might be consumed by anger and by hopelessly destructive sorrow. Especially, if not exclusively, when this mutilation has occurred at an early stage of his life.