Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary “Sacro GRA,” the first nonfiction film to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, is a slice of life film depicting Romans living near the 42.5-mile-long highway that circles the city. This is the kind of film that seems to scream for interpretation, or at least for an answer to the question, “What’s the point of this?” It’s a mosaic-style film that brings together brief character vignettes and flashy tableaux, and then periodically returns to the main characters and settings as the film unfolds, creating a rhythm that will either prove captivating or boring, depending on whether you liked the film (or were willing to give yourself up). for that; I’d argue that the second condition dictates the first, though I must admit I’m going too far here).
The film’s people, or “characters”, include an eel fisherman who has long, comfortable conversations with his wife at their dinner table and occasionally complains about the media and international fishing conglomerates threatening his livelihood; an older man (maybe a professor but maybe a cheesemaker, though I’m never entirely sure what he’s doing) who lives with his teenage daughter and begins a friendly but somewhat engaging monologue; a nobleman who rents out his family’s mansion for filming; a scientist trying to figure out a way to stop beetles from chewing through a grove of palm trees near a freeway; there were some prostitutes living in a trailer, some paramedics walking around, and so on. Sometimes we can see individual characters in isolation (one of the paramedics becomes the film’s de facto star) but more often than not we see them functioning as part of a work partner or partnership. This film has no on-screen narration or title. No one comes right out and tells us why we see these people and situations, in this order.
Of course this blurry, scattered, and sometimes seemingly random arrangement of elements invites us to try to see a pattern or place it on film, preferably to determine what kind of statement, or what statement it is trying to make. Several of my colleagues have tried to do just that, and as such, have judged the film to be genuine and often flashy but fundamentally lacking in depth — well, stuff. Sense of design or purpose. A reason to be, maybe.
Maybe they’re right, but I don’t really care to argue about this “Sacro GRA” aspect. I was moved by the film, not because it seemed to be trying to make a statement about contemporary Rome, or Italy, or the West, or globalization, or class struggle, or anything else that would fit a work of thought or thesis. paper, but as it seems (to me, anyway) gleefully unaware, or deliberately disinterested, into such a film.
I will put “Sacro GRA” on the nexus of three small but important subgenres of film (or television program). One of them is the “heartbeat” film, which is exemplified by various scripted films such as “Open City” and “New York Stories” and the documentaries “Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis” and “Belfast, Maine” and “Jackson Heights”. by Frederick Wiseman; these films are more about pictures and moments than propulsive linear storytelling. Their fun is primarily zoological or taxonomic rather than dramatic. Any sense of structure or rhetorical agenda must be inferred by the viewer. And you can never be completely sure whether the filmmakers actually had the message or whether they were simply arranging or juxtaposing pieces of material (as a collage artist might do) to see what happened. If other people look at the film and see a different pattern, or no pattern, you can’t say they are wrong, because the whole point of such a film is to project yourself onto it.
The second genre is slice-of-life scripted films, which have some overlap with the first category; it is exemplified by “Do the Right Thing” (an expressionist outdoor theatre, limited to one city block) and David Simon’s TV series “The Wire” and “Treme,” which have a very strong documentary affinity. more. They feel more written, more structured. You start in one place, you go elsewhere, you visit and revisit characters, and their stories develop along parallel lines, slowly. Sometimes movies start at sunrise and end at sunrise. There’s a time lapse aspect to this kind of city film. It’s about the textures and rhythms of city life as much as it is about the individual characters.
There’s a third film subgenre that resonates throughout the film’s run: neorealist films in which mostly non-professional actors “perform” interesting but often mundane acts. “The Wire” and “Treme” had a neorealist flair, and during the heights of Iranian cinema aesthetics, the ’80s and ’90s, some of the greatest films were filled with “actors” who more or less played themselves.
Rosi spent two and a half years filming interviews and gathering footage around the highway and another eight months editing material. Nevertheless, these guys are definitely playing themselves, in some way, because they are natural characters. They were characters before the filmmakers saw them. The strongest moments have the intimacy of documentary footage captured by an avid filmmaker who keeps wandering and wandering until the subject finally forgets he’s there.