Filomena goes next, with another story of another Jew, Melchisadech, who also must reckon with Christianity as both a moral problem and an intellectual prospect. Filomena frames it as a story within a story within a story, because now all three of the great monotheistic religions that rose on the southern and eastern extremities of the Mediterranean are in play–as competitors for the loyalties of people on the verge of the end times, all desperate for the right answer to the wrong question, which is, who or what will save us?
In The Decameron story, Saladin the Saracen summons Melchisadech to a meeting where the intricacies of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity–the last for once absent an advocate–will be debated, as preface to an offer that can’t be refused. If your answer is wrong, Saladin says in so many words, I’ll have you hounded or imprisoned, whereupon, as Sultan, I will seize your assets (these are liquid because Melchisadech the Jew, is, of course, a money lender). If your answer is right, again in so many words, I’ll let you lend me money to pay off the debts my profligate kingdom has accumulated. Melchisadech responds with astonishment and then a story about debt, inheritance, forgiveness, and forbearance, about the man who will be Lear.
Filomena leads with a playful critique of reason or restraint that might as well be Nietzschean, or Freudian, or Jamesian: “Well ye know, or should know, loving gossips, that, as it often happens that folk by their own folly forfeit a happy estate and are plunged in most grievous misery, so good sense will extricate the wise from extremity and peril and establish them in complete and assured peace.” Sure it will, Filomena.
By this point, early enough, Boccaccio is begging us to relinquish any belief in reason or Christianity, or in any other way out of Florence in the time of plague, beyond this time and place. Here’s my rewrite of Filomena’s story, updated for our time and place.
INT. Generic prison house interrogation room.
[Two plainclothes cops, one standing and pacing, the other seated across from the prisoner, who is handcuffed to the table, bleeding from his nose and mouth. His name is Giovanni Giorno, known around town and in the collection business as Johnny Day. He resembles the anime character named Giorno Giovanna, slim build, blond hair, slippery attitude.]
JOHNNY: You’re taping this, right? I, Giovanni Giorno, tell you this story to get me outta here, that’s when you’re gonna put me in witness protection. Otherwise I might as well “remain silent,” say I’m not a rat. Then I walk, I’m on the street five hours and I get my brains blown out, and that’s after they pull my nuts off. All right. As long as we’re clear about this. I talk, you listen, you keep your fucking word. I got handcuffs on, that’s my signature. What a you got? [the standing detective strikes him] Ah, that’s what I thought. You want to wipe the blood away? I don’t like the taste. Yeah, yeah, thanks, you fucking creep.
It ain’t about national fucking security just because you, the FBI and what else we got here, say so, just because the guy had a lot of money, a lot of Mideastern muscle, too. Oh. Yeah, I “refer to” Joseph Saladino–he lived in the Bronx, he knew my cousin Danny G., we called him Joey Salad, but he wasn’t just another gangster, he was a banker.
What does that mean, a banker? Well, yeah, he was a towelhead, a fucking Muslim, so he had standards, what you call scruples, he wouldn’t gouge you on the loan, know what I mean? “No usury,” he always said, like high interest rates, like on credit cards. I admired the guy.
OK, OK, yeah, yeah, he was a loan shark, a gangster, call him what you want. No, he didn’t use Melvin Israel’s money to carry out terrorist attacks on the United States of America. C’mon, man. You guys got this upside down. [the standing detective strikes again]
All right, all right, enough with that. Jesus, I got any teeth left? You want the story? Let me tell you the fucking story.
Joey Salad is losing ground during the plague, the coronavirus is killin’ him, he’s like George Bailey and the Building & Loan, Jesus, we’re all losing money by this time, it’s just a question of how you get it back. Or whether you do. But he won’t gouge the little guy, or the big guy, for that matter, he’s gonna do the right thing because he’s a Muslim. No interest, all patience.
But how do you wait out the end of time if it’s already arrived? Yeah, his muscle in the Bronx was all veterans of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, but they were veterans for real, retired from the struggle, if you know what I mean. They’re tired, these are old guys. But they gotta get paid, too.
So Joey calls on Melvin Israel. Like my cousin Donny G., who was looking to collect, Joey Salad is overextended, got too many debts, he’s like a big banker in 2008, he’s gotta ask, where’s my liquidity? But his muscle can’t help him. What can they do, squeeze the little guy? Who does he call?
Joey knows Mel has the money on hand because the old Jew is an uncanny investor. He moved all the assets he managed to cash in the fourth quarter of 2019, as Nero was tuning his fiddle. What, Nero, you know, the Roman emperor who played his violin as the Roman Empire burned down, all the way to the fucking ground. Mel, he knows Trump, he sees what’s coming.
What, they don’t teach you fucking goons history anymore? [the standing detective strikes again] All right, all right, leave the gums alone. I’ll chew shit when this is done, anyway, but you got prison food ready for me? I didn’t think so.
Joey also knows that old Mel will do anything to preserve his daughter’s life, and the grandson, too. So he’s gotta ask, what’s my leverage? You know, like, leverage. What is it you don’t get? Joey asks himself, would I kill Laila, that’s Mel’s daughter, you understand, his daughter, to get this done? Layla, you got me on my knees, Layla, that’s Eric Clapton, you can’t hear that?
Fuck off, you morons, this isn’t play time. Maybe you G-Men need some time out, time off, whatever? Take it, gimme a fucking break [the standing detective strikes again] .. . . . You guys love pain, eh? As long as it’s, oh fuck, enough already, somebody else’s.
OK, we’re back to official interrogation. Yes? I’m so glad I get to make that announcement, you fucking shits are so–all right, all right, leave my eyes alone, a guy’s gotta read. On the record now.
All right, Joey needs leverage, but he’s not a sultan, he can’t seize your assets, so when he calls Mel he doesn’t say shit, he just mentions the man’s daughter, Laila, a doctor, a real MD, who’s working in the ER at Mount Sinai on the upper East Side, 2nd Ave, talk about a shithole, I been there. She was transferred from downtown, from her regular practice, to deal with the virus.
She’s losing her shit because the ER lacks everything except bodies, supplicants whose God won’t answer, not ever. I know this because I know a guy, friend of a friend.
So, look, you gotta understand, these two never met until Joey asks Mel to dinner, there’s no “secret collaboration” going on here, OK? These are not fucking terrorists, they’re just people trying to get it right. Can you understand that?
Now what did they say to each other that night, when they met for dinner? I wasn’t there, I dunno, maybe you had the wire on it, you tell me.
All right, all right, enough with the Taser, you’re right, we had the wire. Joey Salad did a King Lear on Mel the Jew, the Merchant of Venice. So why do you want to know it from me? You had the wire on the wire, right? What else is there, take these fucking cuffs off me. You want what, “confirmation”? That’s beautiful, I mean, I love that, I know you’re gonna hear me out and then you’re gonna kill me. I got the handcuffs on. What a you got? Fuck you, and fuck you and [the standing detective strikes again] . . . wipe it away, wouldja, I don’t wanna die with blood on my face.
Jesus. So I’ll “tarry with the negative,” if you don’t mind, my little brother the intellectual bigshot, he always says that when he wants to make a fool of me. How about I give it to you as dialogue, how’s that, you fucking morons? You ready? I’m a do all the voices, you just listen in. This is what I remember was on the wire.
No? OK, you wait on headquarters, I’m doin’ this without, whaddaya call it, prior restraint. Oh, OK, good, you got approval? Roll it.
All right, Joey Salad is sitting in the kitchen of Evelyn’s, a Lebanese restaurant, waiting on Mel the Jew, Melvin Israel is his proper name. Joey gets up when Mel walks in. They don’t shake hands, it’s too late for that.
JOEY: Glad you could come. I’m grateful.
MEL: Thank you, I have to wonder what I’m doing here.
JOEY: Always wanted to meet you, heard a lot about you.
MEL: Yeah, everybody has, I’m the Jew with the wrong money.
JOEY: That’s what I hope you’re gonna give me.
[They sit down, adjust their chairs and postures.]
MEL: Why would I do that?
JOEY: Because I need it. Because Laila won’t survive if you don’t.
MEL: Do not threaten her. I will kill you if I have to. I have the means.
JOEY: Yeah, I know, the Revolutionary Guard is not my favorite enemy. That wasn’t a threat, it was a prediction. There aren’t enough masks, or anything else, to protect her. I can provide them. Without them she dies.
MEL: My daughter is a doctor, first do no harm, she has vowed.
JOEY: Too late for that, don’t you think? These are the plague times, you and I were wearing masks outside, we’re sitting six feet apart in here, for God’s sake, and we’re in the 23rd precinct, do you get that? Look, I got a question for you, and your answer will determine how I allocate the resources left to me. Right answer, I’ll take your money as a loan at interest. Wrong answer, I let your daughter die. Take a look across the street when you leave, those are the Feds in that white van, they’re watching us, they think I’m a terrorist and you’re my banker.
MEL: They’re not Gods.
JOEY: No, they’re not, but they’re watching and listening. My question is practical. How do you believe? Not what, but how? Given all the possibilities, where you at?
MEL: What are the possibilities?
JOEY: Jews, Christians, Muslims. Whose truth is the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? That’s where I send the masks, through you, you got it? You’re my messenger.
MEL: Oh for Christ’s sake, there’s no such thing as the whole truth. You know that as a Muslim, I know it as a Jew. Ah . . . Let me tell you a story to prove the point. Once upon a time there was a Mafia boss who cherished the ring his father gave him as the token of his ascension.
This boss wanted to bequeath it to one of his three sons–you think maybe Scorcese read this shit?–but he didn’t want to choose among them, he loved then all equally, “indifferently” in the vernacular Italian. So he finds a forger who makes two more rings, and even the forger can’t tell the difference between the original and the copy.
Now what? On his deathbed, the boss gives the three rings to his three sons. They have to decide which one is the original, or to give up the search and act as if there isn’t one, never was.
You know what they do? Nothing. And you know why? Because it’s not a choice, lesser of two and all that, it’s a decision made with the possibility of a future in view. You see what I mean?
JOEY: Not yet.
MEL: Well then you’re fucked. Joseph, Joseph, don’t you get it? Not to choose is to choose, and vice fucking versa. There’s no necessary origin when you read for the ending, and we’re at that ending, for God’s sake. I beg you not to choose.
JOEY: Tell you what. You lend me what I need. I pay you back with interest. Meanwhile, you act as my financial adviser.
MEL: I can do that.