Dante’s Commedia explores many abstract concepts, such as justice, love, free will, and wisdom, that have been the universal subject of human wonderings throughout history. The poet’s passage through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven is a spiritual journey, rife with references to, and interactions with, political and religious figures from Dante’s own era. This weaving-in of contemporary issues, such as the corruption of the Church or factionalism in Italy, initially served to grab the attention of Dante’s audience.
At the time of the poem’s publication, some characters in the poem had only recently died or were still living.
Dante’s bold allusion to well-known leaders of his time also served to spark conversation about moral depravity and how leadership affects the moral alignment of society as a whole. About seven-hundred years have passed since the publishing of the Commedia, yet the relevancy of Dante’s work is steadfast. Dante’s modern-day audience may not understand the majority of his historical references, but they remain relevant due to the nature of mankind.
History repeats itself due to the inability of man to align free will with the greater good. In El Ministerio del Tiempo, a fictional Spanish television series, this notion of constant moral depravity despite the passing of time, and the potential to overcome it, is explored.
In the universe of El Ministerio del Tiempo, time portals provide passage to a plethora of eras throughout history. These portals exist as doors, ranging from the doors of cabinets and closets to doors in the corridors of the Ministry of Time.
Although these time doors are found across the world, the show focuses upon the doors present in Spain. Spain’s Ministry of Time, a highly secretive, autonomous governmental agency, is concerned with keeping watch over these doors and combating the abuse of time travel. Its origins date back to the time of Catholic monarchs, when a Jewish rabbi, in exchange for not being exiled, told the monarchy of a secret network of time doors. The government then formed the Ministry of Time, and the Ministry continued to exist into the present day. Ministries of various eras are connected by time doors, making the Ministry itself an institution that transcends the grasp of time.
The Ministry protects Spain’s national security by preventing potentially catastrophic changes to Spain’s recorded history. Throughout the course of the show, there are various groups and individuals that use the time doors to advance their personal and political agendas. For example, Lola Mendieta, a former Ministry agent believed to have died on a mission, time travels through illicit time doors, smuggling and selling historical artwork for profit. Although Lola swapped out genuine works for realistic imitations, which would appear not to alter the major events of history, her actions could result in unforeseen consequences.
The interconnectivity of the universe renders it susceptible to the butterfly effect. David Tin Win, a lecturer at Assumption University of Thailand, describes it as a phenomenon in which “arbitrarily small changes in initial conditions lead to an exponential growth giving vastly different results” (Win 73). The classic example of this Buddhist chaos theory is expressed through the analogy of a butterfly beating its wings. The butterfly, a small creature, disturbs the air around it by beating its wings. The movement of this air has the potential to set off a chain of chaotic events resulting in a storm or clear skies somewhere distant.
In this way, the seemingly insignificant butterfly interacts with its environment, altering the experience of other creatures in the world. This uncertainty, the capability of one small happening or choice to shift events in the future, is what the Ministry seeks to control. In order to do so, they employ people from a variety of time periods possessing unique talents. Two Ministry agents, main characters of the show and the focus of this discussion, are Julian Martinez and Alonso de Entrerrios.
Julian Martinez is a middle-aged man from twenty-first century Madrid, Spain. His wife, Maite, died after a hit-and-run accident. Her sudden death traumatized Julian, as he was the first responder called to the scene where her lifeless, bloodied body laid in the road. This traumatic experience, and refusal to accept Maite’s death, rendered Julian emotionally unstable, which manifested in risky behavior while working as a paramedic. Julian was willing to go to any lengths to save someone, as he viewed it as compensation for an inability to save his own wife.
In one instance, there was a house fire in Madrid, and Julian was ordered by his superiors not to put himself at risk. However, his overwhelming need to help others caused him to disregard authority. He ran into the house fire, thinking that there were people in danger, but instead stumbled upon something that would change the trajectory of his life forever. Through enormous flames, Julian caught a glimpse of an unconscious man. He was dressed like a solider from the Napoleonic Wars. Julian blacked out from the smoke and awoke to find himself in a hospital. Nobody believed in Julian’s descriptions of the man. However, agents from the Ministry of Time heard of his experience and confronted him about it.
They told Julian that the body of the now-dead man was from 1808, and after a brief introduction to the Ministry of Time, recruited Julian as an agent. His recruitment edged along the lines of blackmail, as the Ministry forged results of psychological tests claiming that he was unable to continue working as a paramedic. The document stated that due to Julian’s “self-destructive tendencies, he constitutes a danger to himself and those around him, for which reason we [Julian’s superiors] recommend he be committed to a specialized center” (“Time Is What It Is” 23:13-23:24). Although these results were of psychological tests not yet carried out, they were true in that they identified Julian’s self-destructive nature, a byproduct of his obsessive love for an unattainable Maite.
As demonstrated in his brush with death in the house fire, Julian’s love for Maite pushes him to engage in irrational behavior. He is willing to go to any lengths not only compensate for failing to save her, but upon learning how to time travel, to interact with her in his past. In season one, episode seven titled “Time of Revenge”, Julian travels from 2017 back to 2012 to visit Maite. He spends a day laughing, talking, and having sex with the woman he truly loves.
This is not the first time he indulges in visiting Maite, as he had previously travelled back in time to admire her from a distance, indicative of his love for her beyond carnal desires. This can be directly paralleled to Dante’s own all-consuming love of Beatrice, a love that pushes both protagonists to do things out of their comfort zones, whether that be due to fear and uncertainty or explicit prohibition from authority. Julian knew his personal use of the time doors was illicit, yet chose to traverse the potentially fiery wall of his superiors’ rage upon learning of his actions.
On the surface, Julian’s indulgence would appear a minor infraction. His time spent with Maite was always brief, and he made a conscious effort not to cause major changes in the life of his wife and past self. However, what Julian consciously refuses to acknowledge is the nuanced nature of the butterfly effect.
His error goes beyond blatant disrespect for authority because he consciously put the history of Spain, and therefore, the lives of his friends, coworkers, and ultimately, all of Spain and the rest of the world, at risk. Any small comment or gesture he made towards Maite could have caused her to act differently than she had in existing history.
This might have set off a chain of complexly interrelated events, rippling out into the alteration of the lives of those related to and completely unknown to her. Although Julian had no ill intentions, he could have inadvertently brought disaster upon the world, a possibility that Julian was aware of and chose to downplay. Julian’s willingness to put others at risk is contradictory to his usual need to aid people, and this demonstrates the concept of the conditioned and absolute will, discussed by Beatrice in canto IV of Paradiso. In life, Piccarda and Constance were nuns. Each of these women were forced to leave their convents in order to marry, thus breaking their sacred vows of sole “marriage” to Christ. In fear of becoming martyrs, neither woman attempted to restore their vows to God, demonstrating the effect of the conditioned will on one’s decisions.
Despite failing to overcome their circumstance, the absolute wills of Piccarda and Constance remained aligned to their sacred vows with God. This earned them placement in the sphere of the Moon, alongside the other vow-breakers of Paradise. Just as the absolute wills of these women remained consistently oriented towards the greater good, Julian’s is invariably aligned with helping others. Additionally, divergence from a just path is experienced by all three characters due to the surrender of the conditioned will to circumstance- Piccarda and Constance to the threat of death, and Julian to the possibility of seeing his wife again. Beatrice would agree that Julian is at fault for the conscious misalignment of wills, and therefore, the sins directly resulting from that.
Julian’s obsession with seeing Maite cannot be categorized as lust, as his love for her clearly encompasses her entire being, similar to Dante’s spiritual love of Beatrice. However, it can be defined as gluttony, as Julian indulges in using the time doors to visit Maite at every possible moment- at least until he gets caught. This would warrant Julian a place in Hell alongside the gluttons. However, Julian’s love of Maite overrules his love of his coworkers, friends, the rest of humanity when he chooses to put the history of the world at risk, and he lies about his whereabouts while doing so. This betrayal of the world encompasses caina (kin), antenora (country), tolomea (guests), and giudecca (masters), and is a subtle manifestation of indirect violence towards all, something Julian actively ignored. This is why Julian’s initial placement in the afterlife is in circle IX, Cocytus, the frozen pit of Hell devoid of any light or divine love.
Despite Julian’s grim initial placement, his fate is not to eternally reside among the traitors. As previously discussed, Julian’s conditioned will caused him to act solely upon his love for Maite in excess, disregarding the safety of those around him. This can be paralleled to Dante’s experience in the Dark Wood, specifically when he encounters “a she-wolf…that in her leanness / seemed racked with every kind of greediness…[and] forced me [Dante and/or Julian] back to where the sun is mute” (Inferno 1.49-60).
Just as Dante is deterred from morality at the sight of the she-wolf, Julian strays from his absolute will when choosing to act fraudulently. However, Julian’s friend and superior at the Ministry, Irene, calls him out for visiting Maite and putting peoples’ lives at risk. Irene reflects the role of Virgil in the Dark Wood when he says ‘“But you must journey down another road…if ever you hope to leave this wilderness,’ (Inferno 1.91-93). Irene urges Julian to choose the path of moral righteousness, and Julian eventually decides to follow that path, despite the path being rife with resistance.
He struggles to conquer his dark, depressive, disoriented state of mind, his personal Dark Wood, after ceasing to visit Maite. In fact, this inner-conflict follows him throughout the remainder of his life. In an effort to escape the Dark Wood, his anxiety over Maite’s death and the guilt of his betrayal, Julian resolves to put his medical talents to good use.
Julian travels to Cuba in 1895, the setting of the Cuban War of Independence, to work as a medic. In doing so, he uses his medical talents to help those in need, aligning his conditioned will with his absolute will. This notion of the just use of talents is central to the Commedia itself, as it is the driving force behind why the poem was written. Dante believed that his poetic abilities should serve the greater good, guiding society towards moral and spiritual salvation, as earthly fame is only temporary. Similarly, Julian uses his talents with no expectation of recognition or approval.
In fact, he goes to Cuba hoping that no one will ever find him. Enemies of the Ministry eventually find him, and he is forced to relocate to the Philippines in 1898, the setting of the Spanish-American War. Following his return to the Ministry, Julian participates in many more missions with his colleagues, preventing the alteration of Spain’s history. On his final mission, Julian is with his colleagues and close friends, Alonso de Entrerrios and Amelia Folch, on a battlefield.
The year is 1937, and they are in the center of the Battle of Teruel during the Spanish Civil War. There are planes dropping bombs, spraying dirt across the battlefield and throwing soldiers into the air. As Amelia and Alonso rush through the trenches to a time door, Julian is tending to a wounded solider. They desperately yell at Julian to follow, but he refuses to do so until he is done helping his patient. When Amelia and Alonso reach the time door, they look back to see Julian sprinting after them. Suddenly, a bomb drops from the sky and hits Julian, killing him before he can escape through the time door. His violent death was a shock to his friends, as well as the audience of the show. However, in Dante’s world, Julian’s death means that he is bound to ascend to Paradise.
Although Julian sinned gravely by betraying the trust of the Ministry, his friends, and the world by putting recorded history at risk, he realized the error of his ways and eventually repented for his sins. He did so by justly applying his medical talents in times of warfare, selflessly putting himself in harm’s way to aid others. His previous involvement in sin and attempt to atone for those sins just before a violent death earns him a place on the terrace of the Late Repentant in Purgatory.
Once the mountain quakes for Julian, he will ascend to Paradise and reside in the sphere of the Moon. Relating once again back to Piccarda and Constance, Julian is a vow-breaker of sorts. His vow was not one with God; however, that makes it no less sacred in nature. As an agent of the Ministry, he vowed to protect Spain’s national security by preventing changes to its history. His was a vow of national, and potentially international, importance that affected the lives of everyone on Earth. He broke this monumental vow, just as Piccarda and Constance broke their own, when his conditional will caused him to stray from his absolute will. Therefore, when Julian achieves salvation, he will exist in perfect bliss in the lowest level of blessedness.
Alonso de Entrerrios, the man present when Julian died, is one of Julian’s closest friends and colleagues. He is a solider recruited for the Ministry from sixteenth century Seville, Spain. Throughout the show, he remains true to his sixteenth century roots. He is a devout Christian, which is emphasized when he makes the sign of the cross before every Ministry mission, and very old-fashioned when it comes to his treatment of women. He is respectful towards them, but firmly believes in traditional gender roles and stereotypes.
For example, Amelia Folch, another Ministry agent, acts as the leader on every mission she, Julian, and Alonso are a part of. Julian and Alonso have orders to answer to Amelia, but Alonso often refuses to do so, viewing Amelia as weak, less intelligent, and incapable of leadership because of her gender. By submitting to Amelia, Alonso would be proclaiming inferiority to a woman, bruising his manly ego. In this way, Alonso struggles with tempering his pride.
However, he eventually swallows this pride and accepts Amelia as an authority figure. Because of this, Alonso would be placed on the terrace of Pride in Purgatory, needing to be purged of the pride that prevented him from being professionally dominated by a woman. Following this purgation, Alonso would exist in the sphere of Mars among the crusaders. The souls of this realm are holy warriors, having lived by and died for the will of God. Just as Caccaguida, Dante’s great-great grandfather, fought for the will of God in the crusades, Alonso dedicated every Ministry mission and experience on the sixteenth century battlefield to that noble pursuit. This earns him a status of blessedness higher than Julian.
Throughout the course of El Ministerio del Tiempo, divergence between the absolute and conditioned wills of Julian and Alonso can be observed. Both Julian and Alonso’s absolute wills are directed towards the greater good. They differ in that Alonso’s is undoubtedly directed towards God, while Julian’s is directed towards the greater good, but not in such an explicitly religious way. Additionally, Julian’s misalignment of wills led him to commit an egregious sin, betrayal, warranting the lowest placement in Paradise, following his repentance and purgation. In a similar way, Alonso’s conditioned will led him to disregard Amelia’s authority over him, as he viewed her based upon the gender roles characteristic of his own era.
However, he ultimately came to respect her and accept the flexible gender roles of the twenty-first century. This analysis of Julian and Alonso through a Dantean lense exemplifies the unshakable relevancy of Dante’s Commedia. One could argue that there is no product of human creativity, such as El Ministerio del Tiempo, that escapes the influence of or distant relation to Dante. This demonstrates how the exploration of morality and pondering of one’s postmortem fate are not only central to Dante’s masterpiece, but pervade the very core of the human experience.