That permanent leap of faith in Christopher Nolan's cinema

A free reflection on science, philosophy and humanity in the innovative seventh art of the London-based director, screenwriter and producer

Christopher Nolan: hand and shoe prints
Christopher Nolan's hand and shoe prints in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood, California

In a 2017 interview, Christopher Nolan stated that all of his films talk about “individual experiences, potential contradictions with objective reality”.
The kaleidoscope of perspectives, their negotiation, consensus as mediation and compromise, comes before any dominant narrative.
"Dunkirk" is above all an immersive representation of the struggle for survival of individual soldiers, "Oppenheimer" the drama of a man and the weight of his conscience.
The historical background is there, in both cases, but it is a derivative, a posteriori construct: we can read it in the books, but no single man has ever lived the History, the one with a capital S.
La History it is not time, but the collective memory of time, the flattened and normalized cultural precipitate of living and chaotic forces.

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Christopher Nolan: the film "The Matrix" by Larry and Andy Wachowski
The two main characters of the film "Matrix" released in 1999, this one not directed by Christopher Nolan, but by brothers (now sisters) Andy and Larry Wachowski: a work that has profoundly influenced all cinematography and the imagination of the following years

Time as a limit to be overcome

Even the obsession with the manipulation of time, another leitmotif of his films, is neither physics nor science fiction.
It is simply a way, perhaps the most effective, to represent the irreconcilability between subjectivity and external reality.
It is a theme that deeply marked the 90s: “Have you ever had a dream that was so realistic that it seemed real to you? What if you never wake up from a dream like this? How could you tell the world of dreams from the world of reality?”, Morpheus asks Neo in the Matrix, the progenitor of the genre.
It can be uncomfortable a lot of philosophy, the Platonic myth of the cave, the Cartesian doubt, the veil of Maya, Schopenhauer and Baudrillard, but Nolan, despite appearances, does not seem to be interested in bizarre speculations.
The point is not to find a rational solution, an exegesis, a reconciliation of effects: “Don't try to understand it. Feel it", advises the scientist to the protagonist of "Tenet", grappling with the effects of the paradoxical reversal of the arrow of time.
Christopher Nolan discounts the inevitable from the start human incapacity to get to grips with the reality in which it finds itself, pragmatically shifting attention to another, more fundamental question: with what attitude should we live our lives, in this condition of perennial ignorance and uncertainty?

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The importance of individual choice…

“Memento” and “Inception” seem to give the same answer: reality is what we choose for ourselves. At some point the doubt must fall. First the flame burns the candle, but finally it burns itself.
It doesn't matter if we are chained to an eternal present, continually deprived of memory and therefore context, like the protagonist of "Memento", suffering from anterograde amnesia following an attack.
It doesn't matter if we have lost the ability to distinguish reality from a dream (or a dream within a dream), like the protagonist of "Inception", a professional thief of secrets in the dream dimension, who in happy handing, in which he finally reunites with children, chooses not to look at his totem (the iconic spinning top that serves as a "reality check"), condemning the viewer to the same suspension of judgement.

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Christopher NolanBruno DeFinetti
Austrian and Italian mathematician and statistician, Bruno De Finetti (1906-1985) formulated the subjective operational conception of probability, certifying the importance of the trust factor that a subject, in possession of certain incomplete information, attributes to an event

After so much toil, what's left?

The hard-won awareness that we can never really knowjust choose what to believe.
“Are you willing to take a leap of faith?” is the phrase that returns several times in "Inception", as the only way to find the way out of an eternal and illusory limbo, but what is on the other side is not a naive and misplaced concept of "reality" , as much as the recovery of a meaning, something worth living for.

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Faith also as a form of sanity

The protagonist of "Memento" cannot trust anything or anyone, but the film ends with these words: “I have to believe in a world outside my mind, I have to convince myself that my actions still make sense, even if I can't remember them. I have to convince myself that, even if I close my eyes, the world continues to be there”.
The real distinction is not between Health and madness, but between constructive madness, that of those who know how to stop, surrender, believe, and destructive madness, like that of the protagonist of "The Prestige", a conjurer worn out by the obsession of discovering his rival's trick (the fruit of a life of absolute dedication and extreme sacrifice) and of not being able to know what his girlfriend felt on her deathbed (she drowned during a performance that ended in tragedy), who manages to bend her laws of nature and to get lost in a spiral of doubles of himself that ends up fragmenting his sense of identity more and more.

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Christopher NolanAlan Turing
Lived between 1912 and 1954, Alan Turing was a British mathematician, logician, cryptographer and philosopher, and is considered to all intents and purposes the father of modern information technology, so much so that it is calculated that his work of decoding secret Nazi messages shortened the Second World War by at least two years: he hypothesized the birth of Artificial Intelligence and imagined a test that has become very famous, the homonymous "Turing Test", to understand whether or not a computer has acquired self-awareness

The very human need for a certain solipsism

Some form of solipsism is inevitable, as a recognition of the limits of our being in the world, but transforming it into an ontological instance turns us into insensitive monsters, like the Sator of "Tenet", who prefers to destroy the world rather than imagining a future which he cannot will be able to witness, or like the Joker from the "Dark Knight", who wants to impose his personal distorted vision of things on anyone and is finally amazed that the "others" do not conform to his idea of ​​the human soul.
“An idea is like a virus”, another famous quote from “Inception”.
If it takes root, it can completely alter our ability to perceive "other than self".
The antidote is, again, an act of faith, which however does not take the form of blind belief, an irrational but seamless counterpoint to its mental antipode, but as healthy skepticism, agnostic humility.

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A bond that transcends space-time

“Interstellar” and “Tenet” are the natural continuation of these reflections.
In both, time folds and folds back on itself, either due to phenomena of quantum gravity in the recesses of the cosmos, or due to effects of entropic inversion in the otherwise familiar terrestrial context.
Instead of offering more freedom of action to the characters, committed to communicating with their own future, this however seems to completely deny their free will, closing them in a "temporal pincer" in which everything seems written, predetermined, bound to self-consistency.
The characters wonder several times about the meaning of their efforts, in the light of this doubt of predestination.
In "Interstellar", the meaning of one's actions is found in the emergence of gods human constructs (love, first of all), which break the linearity of physical laws and the circularity of time, reminding us that every good explanation of a phenomenon requires several levels (otherwise we only have a one-dimensional chain of causes and effects).
In "Tenet", the meaning derives from the assumption of responsibility, will, choice.
Again, a leap of faith is required, either way. The protagonist of "Interstellar" takes a real leap - into the black hole Gargantua - to rejoin his daughter across the oceans of time, establishing a physical connection, yes, but one that could not have existed without their bond.
“Love is the only thing we can perceive that transcends the dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that, even if we can't figure it out yet.", and in the end the daughter, now on her deathbed, finding her father confesses that "Nobody wanted to believe me, but I knew you'd come back, because my dad promised me."

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Christopher NolanIgnazio Licata
Ignazio Licata, Italian theoretical physicist and epistemologist born in 1958, studied among others with David Bohm, is editor-in-chief of the journal "Electronic Journal of Theoretical Physics" as well as scientific director of the Interdisciplinary Institute for Scientific Methodology (ISEM): in his latest book, "Arcipelago (May 2023, Nutrimenti publisher), presents an analysis of our present and future, identifying new social and political tools capable of freeing us from the cages of current dynamics

The limits of algorithm and AI in Nolan filmmaker

“Ignorance is our weapon”, is repeated several times in "Tenet": if freedom is an illusion, it is still worth embracing it, living as if it were real, on pain of falling into fatalism.
“'It happened the way it did', which is an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world, not an excuse for doing nothing”, is the sentence that concludes the whole operation to save the world and that gives meaning to the conscious sacrifice of the co-star.
And the notorious "algorithm" that threatens the future (or the past) of humanity, even if represented in physical form, is none other than the symbol of the ubiquitous algorithms of artificial intelligence which now dominate our lives, heirs of reductionism and concrete threats to the very idea of ​​human creativity and freedom, reduced to complicated numerical schemes.

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The world's allergy to algorithmic compression

But most systems in the universe do not lend themselves to "algorithmic compression" (i.e. abstract formalization, an act whose limits are known thanks to the works of Kurt Gödel, Alan Turing and Gregory Chaitin), otherwise “five-dimensional beings” of "Interstellar" would not need the protagonist, to close the time loop.
In both films, saving humanity requires first of all saving oneself: it is a battle for one's soul, in a hostile but not evil universe; cruelty is a human prerogative, just like salvation.
As in "The Matrix", if we insist on seeing reality as a "simulation" - a mere calculation based on rules and laws - then the point is to believe in our nature as "oracles".

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Christopher Nolan as Kurt Godel
Kurt Friedrich Gödel is an Austrian mathematician, naturalized in the United States, who lived between 1906 and 1978: his works on the concept of incompleteness of mathematical theories were fundamental, which significantly influenced research in this matter as well as in computer science, in addition to philosophical thought of the XNUMXth century

An anti-scientific spirit is not presupposed

Indeed, few directors have brought physics to the screen with the same maniacal dedication as Christopher Nolan.
If anything, deprive the science of its purely computational and predictive role, freeing it from the prejudice well outlined by the Austrian and Italian mathematician Bruno De Finetti.
“Knowing how things will go… as if they would go by themselves!”, which recalls another scene from “Tenet”, in which the protagonist, passively waiting for an inverted bullet to jump by itself from the table into his hand, is reprimanded by the scientist: “You have to throw it first” (again denying that the law of cause and effect, whichever way you look at it, is the end of the story).
Se every knowledge it is partial, if uncertainty is inevitable, trust is no longer a luxury, but a necessity to move forward: a lucid, rational bet, but which also always conceals an emotional content.
There is always a limit to human knowledge, which only free empirical investigation can displace.
In his latest film, “Oppenheimer” says phrases like “theory can only go so far” and "what do you expect from theory alone?”.
This is why building the bomb and seeing its effects is the only way to "believe" it.

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Opening up to the world from an innovative perspective

For better or for worse, man is an explorer, creator and discoverer of his future and constantly grappling with the consequences of his own choices.
Faith is the wind that fills the sails, even when route and destination are largely unknown, but it is also the anchor we hold on to when every reference jumps.
It is a contradiction that resonates in the very style of Christopher Nolan's cinema, as unscrupulous in themes as attached to tangibility, with his rejection of digital and CGI.

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Christopher NolanGregory Chaitin
Born in 1947, Gregory Chaitin is an Argentine mathematician and computer scientist, known for his contributions to metamathematics, i.e. the discipline that studies the general principles of mathematics

The sense of reality as "resistance of the world"

To use the happy expression of the physicist Ignazio Licata, the sense of reality is linked to "resistance of the world", to the active and concrete effort to forge its material.
But it is the same contradiction that dwells in each of us, especially in a period, such as the current one, which sees an ever more extreme level of virtualization, and which feeds that predisposition to virtuality (understood as anticipation, imagination) which is the key distinctive of mankind.
So faith as the denial of all absolute truth, which however is not equivalent to naive relativism, indifferent to the dialectic of points of view, in the name of a trivial (politically correct) multiplication of the concept of truth.
The best accessible approximation of the truth is the conscious but critical adherence to subjectivity, the bet on the value of one's choices, but this value can only be measured in a collective context (whose shared acquisitions cannot be denied), in openness to world and in comparison with each other.

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The trailer of the film "Following" (1998) by Christopher Nolan

The trailer of the film "Memento" (2000) by Christopher Nolan

The trailer of the film "Insomnia" (2002) by Christopher Nolan

The trailer of the film "Batman Begins" (2005) by Christopher Nolan

The trailer of the film "The Prestige" (2006) by Christopher Nolan

The trailer for the film "The Dark Knight" (2008) by Christopher Nolan

The trailer of the film "Inception" (2010) by Christopher Nolan

The trailer for the film "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012) by Christopher Nolan

The trailer of the film “Interstellar” (2014) by Christopher Nolan

The trailer of the film “Dunkirk” (2017) by Christopher Nolan

The trailer of the film "Tenet" (2020) by Christopher Nolan

The trailer for the film "Oppenheimer" (2023) by Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan: the recognition of the United States Library of Congress
Two of Christopher Nolan's films (“Memento” and “The Dark Knight”) have been selected by the United States Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry