The American, which opened September 1, 2010 weaves together assassins, prostitutes and a priest who failed to keep his vows into a thriller that pits betrayal against love. The character George Clooney plays is a hit man at the cross roads. He has an unexpected proclivity, an attraction to butterflies. One is tattooed on his back and he is drawn to a river area that attracts a rare species of white butterfly, nearly extinct.
Butterflies, white or otherwise, are generally used as symbols of change and transformation. The transformation of Clooney’s hit man is faintly won as he reaches out to love and is able to trust as time is running out. The white butterfly, an ethereal presence, gives the illusion of soul, a reminder that the ancient Greek word for butterfly (psyche) was soul. Soul is nearly extinct in a world of expedient annihilation.
The world-weary killer Clooney portrays lives at an animal level where survival of the fittest is based on the deadliest aim, fastest weapon, and instinct to overcome another’s vulnerability. It is death for hire, the absence of any moral consideration.
The film draws on archetypes – the prostitute with a heart of gold, the fallen priest driven to save others, the killer who will stop after one last job. The plot moves from one betrayal to another with Clooney’s character shifting back and forth between the hunter and the hunted.
What is especially interesting about the film is the story behind how it was made. There is a wonderful contrast between the film’s depicting man without conscience and the almost “soulful” combination of pragmatism and social conscience that guided the director’s selection of where to shoot the movie.
Director Anton Corbijn wanted to film most of the movie in Abruzzo, Italy, particularly around the capital city, L’Aquila, which was where the book A Very Private Gentleman which inspired the movie was set. However, in April 2009 a severe earthquake destroyed L’Aquila and other villages in Abruzzo, killing several hundred and leaving tens of thousands homeless.
Knowing that the region would be well served economically by having the movie made there, and liking the area’s fit for the film, Corbijn persisted in looking for villages that could be rebuilt by fall’s film schedule; his team met with various mayors to see what could be done. Those involved with the film helped support fundraising efforts, including George Clooney’s visit to L’Aquila to call attention internationally to the earthquake’s damage. The villages of Castel Del Monte and Castelvecchio committed to being ready for the filming, and with Sulmona were the three locations in Abruzzo used.
As the area has not fully recovered, relief efforts continue. Village leaders in Abruzzo hope that tourism will be invigorated by movie goers being charmed by the film’s setting and traveling to see the region.
The making of The American tells a larger story than whatever box office appeal it will have; it is about people of principle who, rather than avoid the inconvenience of disaster and go elsewhere to avoid complications, diminished disaster’s impact by how they choose to do business and make a movie.
Gael O’Brien, September 4, 2010