Writer of science with the
mission of the magician:
to encourage people
to approach life in
a state of Wonder.




Raining money, from Bulgakov to “Now You See Me”

I can find just a single strong symbolic point in Now You See Me — the latest film by Louis Leterrier: the idea of gifting spectators with actual money.

Much of contemporary magic is unable to provide a Meaning to what is being offered to the public. Magic has become a self-referential issue. Pick a card in order to let the magician find it in order to inflate his own Ego. As Jerry Seinfeld put it:

All magic is “Here’s a quarter, now it’s gone. You’re a jerk. Now it’s back. You’re an idiot. Show’s over.”

Faced with a magician inviting us to pick a card, the most logical reply would be to ask: “Why should I?” Such a question would challenge the self-referentiality, forcing magicians to explain in what realm his magic is expected to lie. Most of them would not know what to say.

When we had to hunt to survive, making a pray appear out of nothing was a magical gesture with significant social implications. Nobody would have asked: “Why do you do so?” The Meaning of the act was self-evident. Today, pulling a rabbit out of a hat can’t help but being perceived as the incongruous juxtaposition of a old fashioned garment with a beast not so frequently seen in modern cities. The progressive emptying of meaning of magic tricks turned them into nostalgic (when not pathetic) evocations of past scenarios, making conjuring one of the favorite targets of modern satire.

In our Post-Modern Age, where everything has already been said and written, the only acceptable attitude in presenting such magic tricks is an aware citationism. Few magicians got the point. Most of them just repeat naively old magic tricks, having lost the Meaning evoked when they were conceived.

In Now You See Me the four magicians perform a magic effect with a precise meaning, totally aligned to the times we live in: they steal money from bad guys, using magic to redistribute wealth and restore social justice. In our capitalist society, it is a quite common secret desire. The Four Horsemen fulfill exactly that dream. Without using “real” magic — like in Harry Potter’s saga — but rather sophisticated technology and skilled psychological subterfuges like the one used in Ocean’s trilogy. Beneath the surface, spectators get the idea that rationality, engineering and psychology may prevail on the misdeeds of finance.

Writing this story, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt did what any magician should do planning his shows: pondering which powers spectators crave and striving to embody them literally in a show. Once we asked the shaman to produce a rabbit to eat. Today, many of us would ask for cash. The four magicians embody the total awareness of the dreams of our age, and they literally fulfill those desires.

My friend Stefano Pascolutti suggested that the scene showing money falling from the ceiling was not original. Maybe the director Leterrier was citing Michail Bulgakov and the black magic show given by Woland in the novel The Master and Margarita:

«Look up, please! … One!» There was a pistol in his hand. He shouted: «Two!» The pistol was pointed up. He shouted: «Three!» There was a flash, a bang, and all at once, from under the cupola, bobbing between the trapezes, white strips of paper began falling into the theatre. They twirled, got blown aside, were drawn towards the gallery, bounced into the orchestra and on to the stage. In a few seconds, the rain of money, ever thickening, reached the seats, and the spectators began snatching at it. Hundreds of arms were raised, the spectators held the bills up to the lighted stage and saw the most true and honest-to-God watermarks. The smell also left no doubts: it was the incomparably delightful smell of freshly printed money. The whole theatre was seized first with merriment and then with amazement. The word «money, money!» hummed everywhere, there were gasps of «ah, ah!» and merry laughter. One or two were already crawling in the aisles, feeling under the chairs. Many stood on the seats, trying to catch the flighty, capricious notes. (1)

Unlike Leterrier, Bulgakov portrays the scene with a subtle cruelty. Because Woland is Satan. The narrative dwells on the public and his greed, and through the assault on banknotes Bulgakov describes bitterly the Russian society — still a slave to money and consumerism in spite of the socialist revolution. In the second part of the show, the Devil involves women in a similar test, making a myriad of precious clothes from Paris appear on stage:

There came a clean breakthrough, and from all sides women marched on to the stage. Amid the general agitation of talk, chuckles and gasps, […] women disappeared behind the curtain, leaving their dresses there and coming out in new ones. A whole row of ladies sat on stools with gilded legs, stamping the carpet energetically with newly shod feet. […] Women hastily grabbed shoes without trying them on. One burst behind the curtain like a storm, got out of her dress there, took possession of the first thing that came to hand — a silk dressing-gown covered with huge bouquets — and managed to pick up two cases of perfume besides. (2)

According to Margaret Crepax, the scene foreshadows our present:

The black magic show, with the money falling from ceiling and clothes shop and French perfumes gifted to spectators — unable to doubt the good faith of the performers on stage and ready to accept anything as long as it is donated — remind many of our ferocious TV shows, explicitely designed to exploit human weaknesses. (3)

The MC tries in vain to warn the audience, inviting spectators to exercise a healthy skepticism and declassifying the event to a simple case of collective hypnosis:

A purely scientific experiment, proving in the best way possible that there are no miracles in magic. Let us ask Maestro Woland to expose this experiment for us. Presently, citizens, you will see these supposed banknotes disappear as suddenly as they appeared. (4)

But there is no room for reason and disenchantment on Woland’s stage. His assistant consolidates deception, inviting the audience to doubt the words of the Master of Ceremonies:

This is a case of so-called lying. The notes, citizens, are genuine! (5)

The public takes sides with the Devil, (6) inviting him to behead the unwary MC. Decapitation takes place in a barbaric manner, and Bulgakov describes in detail the most atrocious as Quentin Tarantino would.

At the end of the show, another spectator raises doubts about the authenticity of what has been presented. It is an important officer of the Moscow theaters:

It is desirable, citizen artiste, that you expose the technique of your tricks to the spectators without delay, especially the trick with the paper money. (7)

Here Woland performs the same mind reading effect portrayed in Now You See Me, when the mentalist reveals — thanks to his ability to read minds — the embarrassing escapade of a man in front of the horrified eyes of his wife. The betrayal of the officer is publicly exposed, and the show ends in the general laughter.

Unfortunately trusting the Devil is not so wise. The first to notice are the women, whose French clothes disappear straight out of the theater, causing panic and general embarrassment. The next day Moscow will be literally flooded with fake money, all coming from the theater where Woland presented his show.

Leterrier knew Bulgakov? Hard to say. For sure, Bulgakov knew how to throw a fierce critic of Russian society at the time, by the means of a magic show.


(1) Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita, translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

(2) Ibidem.

(3) Margherita Crepax in Michail Bulgakov, Il Maestro e Margherita, Feltrinelli, Milano 2011, p. 12.

(4) Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita, translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

(5) Ibidem.

(6) In the 2012 BBC documentary Crossfire Hurricane, Jagger stated that his influence for the song “Sympathy for the Devil” came from Baudelaire and from Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel. He received it as a gift from Marianne Faithfull.

(7) Ibidem.