Wonderful villains

In the small and ancient village located at the base of the mountain that shelters the monastery there is an old and charming movie theater in front of the church square. I would go see a movie whenever my chores at the Order allowed me to. One evening, I went with Loureiro, a cobbler friend of mine, who loved books and wines. Philosophy and red were his favorites. Fixing shoes was his trade; mending souls, his skill. After the film, he invited me for a glass in a quiet tavern close by. We talked about the film we had just watched. I told him that what impressed me the most was the fact that the villain had stolen the scene, due to the excellent performance of the actor in playing the character. The elegant craftsman took a sip before talking: “The better the villain the more interesting the hero. The villain is essential in the life of the hero, to help hone him or her, in art and in life.”

I strongly disagreed with him. I knew insufferable people, and I just wanted to make them disappear, like magic. Loureiro laughed and said: “If we had such a power, we would waste the best opportunities to learn, and therefore, to evolve. The villains play an important role, both in our lives and on the screen. Conflicts make the stories move, in real life and in fiction; thus, it is important that the antagonist incites the protagonist to find the best in himself.”

Manicheistic as I was at the time, I said that heroes were the good guys; villains were the bad guys. As simple as that. The cobbler disagreed: “Have you ever thought that in a number of moments in life we play the role of villains? This happens every time we go against someone’s wishes. We do not have necessarily to be evil, we just have to say ‘no’. When we deny the wish of someone else, causing frustration, we may be elected ‘the villain of the hour’. I shut up, as I have never thought about it in those terms. He said he would try to go deeper in his explanation: “If you consider that each one is the protagonist of their own story, the villain is the one who is always against your goals, however noble they may be.” He paused briefly to have a sip of wine and continued: “The important is that the villain emerges to force the hero to be the best he can be; to outdo himself and overcome the hardship that is presented to him. Hence, villains serve to strengthen us, to hone ourselves and leverage our evolution. The antagonist is paramount on the screens and in the lives of everyone.”

I replied, saying that I wanted to live in peace with the world, with no need of conflicts of any sort. “Yes, this is a common dream, one for which we are not yet ready. In our current level of awareness, the function of villains is to spur us out of inertia and force us to walk; to understand the need of the indispensable personal transformations to continue the journey. In films, the heroes will master the sword; in real life we let clear wisdom and pure love flourish. In the end, the villain plays the role of a hidden master, relentlessly compelling evolution,” he explained.

Loureiro pursued his reasoning: “It is worth stressing that villains present themselves in different forms, not only as a person whose mission is to annoy us. Financial and emotional hardships, health problems, natural disasters are some examples of important antagonists tripping us so that we are forced to find a new point of balance. The blow forces us to move.” Before I could say anything, he added: “More importantly,” and he made a theatrical pause to pique my curiosity to complete the sentence, “the worst villain is the one who lives in the guts of the hero.”

I told him I had not understood. Loureiro watched me for a moment, pleased with the effect he had caused, and said: “Just like a foe hones us by forcing us to shape our virtues in order to overcome hardships, our shadows force us, sooner or later, to turn on and nourish the Light that dwells within ourselves. Or we will be eaten by the other us. We often prefer not to believe that there is a dragon that needs to be tamed. We delay our journey trying to justify our obscure feelings, rather than transmute them. We have been historically conditioned to protect ourselves from the enemy “outside”. We climb the walls of our homes and lives; we put on masks of what we are not, trying to look stronger; we shield ourselves against everything and everyone, with the illusion of being protected against evil. We are so concerned with others that we forget to watch and understand ourselves. If we pay attention and are honest, we will admit no one hampers more the march of life than each one of us in our own lives whenever we decide to nourish or ignore our own dark side, without realizing that at these moments the villain takes possession of our will and imprisons us in a cell without bars. Until the day we decide to fight back. This is everyone’s story, this is the true hero’s journey.”

“As the villain hones the hero in fiction, in real life the shadows, when well perceived, delineated and brought to light, become an important factor for personal growth, forcing us towards the indispensable metamorphosis of evolution. Bear in mind that the fiercest battles are fought within ourselves. They are but the actual need to outdo oneself in the attempt to shed light in the dark dungeons of being. Hence we become heroes of our own story, the villain fulfills his role as a master, and no longer is the scapegoat of our eventual failures.”

I rebuked him, now more out of stubbornness than belief. To me, fiction was quite different from reality. “Yes and no. But note that there are important aspects in common,” he said. “In fact, fiction works with archetypes that lay dormant in the subconscious mind, waiting to be decoded. This is why we like so much certain films and characters, as they have the power to elicit something that exists within ourselves that we don’t yet understand, even though we are strangely aware it is missing. It is like a new virtue, unknown until that time but ready to manifest itself. When we identify ourselves with the goals of the character, we realize there is something in him that also exists within us, even if in an embryonic stage. There is a well-known psychoanalyst who starts therapy by asking the patient what his favorite film was.”

The theory of the wise craftsman had disconcerted my old and taken-for-granted certainties. I did not know what to think. New ideas make you feel awkward, and need time to mature within you. He knew that, and struck the final blow: “Villains are abusive, challenging, deceiving, but awaken the hero that lies dormant in ourselves whenever they make us knock down the walls of the cell our personal limitations lock us in. Hence, they end up by helping us develop skills we have that were dormant, or were even unknown to us. They lead us beyond the limits we allowed ourselves to go up to that moment. They force us to illuminate our own shadows. In the end, they teach us to use wings. To have that awakened is, essentially, the power of art in our lives.”

He paused briefly, raised his glass, looked at me in the eye and said, half mockingly, half seriously: “A toast to the villains. They are important and deserve a good, fair tribute for the growth they propel. Without them we would not have reached this far.”

Kindly translated by Carlos André Oighenstein.

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