All the Pain in the World is, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, a perfect piece of comedy.The effortless blend of a simple storyline and the protagonists’ relatable mentality are heightened to an absurd degree leaving the viewer in a prolonged state of awe long after it ends. As one who’s clearly a proficient story teller, it is no wonder Tommaso Pitta’s other short film, How I Didn’t Become a Piano Player, won the comedy prize at this year’s Aesthetica Short Film Festival. Trying to unpack this short has been nothing less than a religious experience.
Pitta’s stroke of genius comes from an ironically straightforward premise. It’s Christmas time and a man sees a pet shop fish trapped against the side of the tank. He takes pity on the fish and decides to inform the owner. That is it. But from there the short snowballs along at a breakneck pace, our protagonist reacting more and more strongly to the careless individuals he encounters, until finally it ends as it begins; a man sitting alone in a sparsely decorated room with a dead fish.
The opening voice over gives the man’s incredible reactions their credibility. He reveals that, although he doesn’t fully know why, “for a moment encapsulated in that fish [he] saw all the pain in the world”. It is with this overriding context that the viewer sympathises with the man. He isn’t just strangling a pet shop owner without just cause. He’s standing up to every bully in the world. Every corrupt leader, every absent parent, every ex-partner. It is from being thrust into this strange place of both complete understanding and the awareness of how ludicrous the situation is that gives the short its comedy. When one reaches that apex of conflicting opinions they cannot help but throw back their head and laugh.
It isn’t just comedy it’s a release of a mental paradox one cannot reconcile. How is the viewer consistently able to root for a man who flushes a store owners head down a toilet for suggesting they dispose of a goldfish? Well, it’s in the creation of this logic-defying empathy that I feel this piece is particularly excellent, and it all hinges on our protagonist.
The man, as I have been referring to him, is barely a character in his own right. He doesn’t appear to have a job, or a partner, or any character development outside of the 12 minutes and 20 seconds of life the viewer is treated to. He wears a plain brown suit and plain white shirt, the only hint of individuality found in the festive tie that does more to set the piece in time than comment on the man’s personality. He is neither particularly tall nor short. His hair and eyes are brown. His facial expressions are limited. His room is painted beige and sparsely furnished in complimentary shades of beige. In summation, the man is appears to be nothing more than a stock photo of a middle-aged Englishman animated on a backdrop of bleak, wintery London. Or, more brilliantly, the perfect placeholder for every irreducibly complex audience member to map themselves onto.
It is essential that the protagonist, a man who isn’t even named for the entire film, be so plain. It allows the viewer to see themselves reflected in his actions. Scott McCloud’s celebrated graphic novel ‘Understanding Comics: the invisible art’ puts it thusly: “the cartoon [or in our case, the plain-faced protagonist] is a vacuum into which our identity and awareness are pulled… an empty shell that we inhabit which enables us to travel to another realm”. It appears true that when watching All the Pain in the World “we don’t just observe [the man], we become [him]”. In becoming him we inherit all his drive to save that fish, and experience all the futility as his efforts constantly fail.
It is this heightened sense of empathy, that stems directly from the man’s blandness, that allows the audience to fully participate in his quest to save the fish, yet still retain enough of themselves to also see the absurdity in the strength of his reactions; consequently resulting in the mental contradiction that yields nothing but humour and awe. So, considering this, I believe I have proved my starting hypothesis.
All the Pain in the World is, completely and irrefutably, a perfect piece of comedy.