The beautiful medieval hill town of Monticchiello in Tuscany and its Teatro Povero (Poor Theater) is the subject of the wondrous documentary, Spettacolo (translation: “Show”). In the 1960s, the residents of Monticchiello began practicing what they called “autodramma,” culminating in an annual performance in the main piazza at the height of the summer season. Though the film was made by two Americans, Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen, they remain invisible throughout the production; the feel of the documentary is entirely Italian.
The story centers on the townspeople of Monticchiello, and the man, Andrea Cresti, who through an organic process has led and directed them and their annual play for fifty years. Their defining moment as a people came toward the end of World War II, when the entire village was within a hair’s breadth of being summarily executed, and this story is one of the earliest they tell as a play, and the one which has compelled them to continue to tell the real stories of their lives. The villagers meet and engage in lively, in-depth debates during the fall and winter of the year, as they focus intently on the critical task of choosing and revealing what is closest to them. What’s most important to them is that the subject will honestly reflect what is impacting their lives at that moment in time. They have already been through several years of recession, though the rich seem to get richer, buying up farmhouses and homes in the town and surrounding areas for vacation homes, and further destabilizing the incomes of the residents. So the villagers play out the resulting emotions through their roles in the year’s production of the Teatro Povero. It’s a deeply interesting, human story, and will be especially so for aficionados of theater.
A lighter tone here, as we hear the story of the Barolo Boys (one, Chiara Boschis, was actually a “girl”) as they upended centuries of tradition during the 1980s in an effort to strengthen and modernize the making of the great wine, Barolo, in the Langhe region of the Piedmonte in Northern Italy. Introduced by chef Joe Bastianich, (hearty son of the fabulous chef Lidia Bastianich of television’s “Lidia’s Kitchen”) the film builds on interviews with the now aging winemakers (primarily in Italian with English subtitles) as they describe the radical techniques they used, which included selecting, cutting, and leaving almost half of the grape harvest on the ground in order to intensify the flavors of the remaining grapes. This waste was deplored by the traditional winemakers of the region, but it certainly made a name for the Barolo Boys, who caused a huge boom in the popularity and name recognition of Barolo. They even toured America promoting their versions of Barolo, and even for a while had their own soccer team!
Even so, there is still controversy regarding whether what they did was better or worse for Barolo. Nevertheless, they were extremely influential. The vineyards, fields, and towns in the Langhe provide a great background to this story, and final scenes on the dizzying slopes of coastal vineyards in the Cinque Terre region are quite beautiful. Laughing, singing Italians, great wine, friendly conflict, camaraderie, marching bands straggling through vineyards…there’s a lot of fun and a lot to like about this documentary.
Fisherman’s Conversations (2014) Hoopla
This beautiful 2014 film was made by young Italian filmmaker Chiara Bove Makiedo, in memory of her Croatian grandfather, a fisherman (by choice) of Hvar, the island where she summered for a good part of her life. Her grandfather had a career as a judge, and even as an ambassador to the UN, but chose fishing as his final career.
Hvar is a Croatian Island in the Adriatic Sea, sharing a maritime border not far from Italy, and the Italian language is one of those spoken in Croatia. The filmmaker captures the startling contrasts between the lives of fishing families, and the “modern party tourism” which promotes the decadent “Carpe Diem” parties and threatens to overwhelm the island’s traditional lifestyle. As clubbers stumble back to their rooms at 4:30 am, drunk and high through broken bottles and other signs of the night’s partying, the fishermen pass them in the streets heading for their boats and the morning’s fishing. Three generations of the Bibic family use only their hands and the simplest cast nets, fishing from a family boat built in 1902, a style known as “tramata.” Their summer catch remains on the island, supplying the many restaurants as well as year round residents of Hvar. They fish in the way men have been fishing for thousands of years off these islands, their nakedness as they dive to set their nets so innocent-seeming when contrasted with the decadence of the “Carpe Diem” parties.
During the winter, the local “dragger” fishermen sell ninety percent of their catch to the Italians. But all of the fishermen, and family members, no matter what style of fishing they favor, hang out together in the winter. They celebrate life’s events and struggle to conserve their way of life as best they can while tourism and nightlife are elbowing out their traditional values and ways of being. For some who watch Fishermen’s Conversations, the documentary will resonate with the feeling of Provincetown and other fishing communities we know of which are wrestling with the question of how to survive.
This extraordinary award-winning documentary by veteran filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi concerns the European refugee crisis and the residents of the island of Lampedusa, temporary landfall for the migrants from Africa and the Middle East on a treacherous and often fatal voyage. Though Lampedusa was at one time mainly a quiet island of Sicilian fishing families, its location, closer to the African coast than to Sicily, makes it a destination for the smugglers who carry desperate men, women, and children, under the most horrifying conditions, to a safer shore.
Rosi turns his lens on a handful of residents of Lampedusa, and their ordinary day to day lives, which nevertheless at times intersect with the plight of the refugees. A seemingly carefree twelve-year-old boy, Samuele Pucillo, who roams the desolate island with a friend and a slingshot hoping to bag small birds, suffers from a new-found anxiety, and learns compassion. He is treated by his family doctor Pietro Bartoli, the only doctor on the island, who also must examine each and every refugee who makes landfall and even the bodies of those who die en route or are washed ashore from sunken vessels or life rafts. It is a daunting and horrifying task, and this compassionate man, though seemingly calm, is haunted by what he has seen. He deeply believes, “It is the duty of every human being to help these people.”
The film takes the viewer through the process the migrants endure from the moment when the boats make contact with the Coast Guard station on Lampedusa. This includes an unsuccessful search and rescue as well as a successful one. Even the successful ones, though, come at a great cost to the refugees. Although this is not an easy film to watch for many of us, I have added it to this blog post because I believe everyone should see it. And in spite of this great human tragedy, the courage and determination of the refugees as well as the compassion of Dr. Pietro Bartoli and others on Lampedusa make this movie ultimately life-affirming in a huge way. The prime minister of Italy considered this documentary, winner of multiple awards, of such importance that he distributed copies to the twenty-seven heads of state of the European Union.
To check out more of Khristine’s Italian movie recommendations, check out Un Progetto Speciale – Part 10!