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Sacro GRA

    Entertainer
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    By Entertainer

    Thumb_sacro-gra-2016

    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 movie that portrays Romans who live near the 42.5-mile long highway that loops around the city. It’s the sort of film that would seem to cry out for interpretation, or at least for an answer to the question, “What is the point of this?” It’s a mosaic-style film that strings together brief character sketches and striking tableaux, and then periodically returns to key characters and settings as the movie unfolds, creating a rhythm that will prove either mesmerizing or boring, depending on whether you like the film (or are willing to give yourself over to it; I’d argue that the second condition determines the first, though admittedly I’m getting ahead of myself here).

    The film’s people, or “characters,” include an eel fisherman who has long, comfortable conversations with his wife at their dinner table and sometimes grouses about the media and the international fishing conglomerates threatening his livelihood; an older man (perhaps a professor but maybe a cheese-maker, though I was never entirely sure about what he does) who lives with his teenage daughter and launches into amiable but rather involved monologues; a royal who rents out his family's lavish home for film shoots; a scientist trying to figure out how to stop beetles from chewing through a grove of palm trees near a stretch of freeway; there are a couple of prostitutes who live in a trailer, a couple of paramedics making their rounds, and so on. Sometimes we get to see individual characters in isolation (one of the paramedics becomes the de facto star of the movie) but more often we see them function as part of a couple or a work partnership. The movie has no narration or onscreen titles. There is nothing that comes right out and tells us why we're seeing these people and situations, in this order.

    Of course this opaque, diffuse, at times random-seeming arrangement of elements invites us to try to discern a pattern or superimpose one on the movie, the better to determine what kind of statement, or statements, it is trying to make. Quite a few of my colleagues have tried to do exactly that, and in so doing, have judged the movie to be sincere and often striking yet fundamentally lacking in—well, stuff. A sense of design or purpose. A reason for being, perhaps.

    Maybe they’re right, but I don’t particularly care to argue about this aspect of “Sacro GRA.” I was moved by the film, not because it seemed to be trying to make a statement about contemporary Rome, or Italy, or the Western world, or globalization, or class struggle, or anything else that lends itself to a think piece or a thesis paper, but because it seemed (to me, anyway) blithely unaware of, or deliberately disinterested in, being that sort of movie.

    I’d situate “Sacro GRA” at the nexus of two or three minor but vital subgenres of movie (or television program). One is the diffuse but often dazzling “beating heart of the city” film, exemplified by such diverse scripted movies as “Open City,” “New York Stories” and the documentaries “Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis” and such Frederick Wiseman's “Belfast, Maine” and “Jackson Heights.” The other is the scripted slice-of-life movie, exemplified by "Do the Right Thing” (an expressionist piece of outdoor theater, confined to a single city block) and David Simon’s TV series “The Wire” and “Treme,” which had very strong documentary affinities. You start in one place, you go somewhere else, you visit and revisit the characters; sometimes the movie starts with the sun rising and ends when it sets, other times you see the sun repeatedly rising and setting to convey a wider swath of time passing. 

    The one quality linking all these very different titles is a decentralized feeling. They aren't focused on any one character or group of characters, or for that matter, any single theme, but on a vibe, and on emotions generated in the moment.  Their pleasures are primarily zoological or taxonomic rather than dramatic. Any sense of structure or rhetorical agenda has to be inferred by the viewer, and you can never be entirely sure if the filmmakers really have a message or if they’re just arranging or juxtaposing bits of material (as a collage artist might) to see what happens.

    There’s a third subgenre of movie echoing through this film’s running time: the neorealist film in which a large cast of mostly nonprofessional actors “performs” fascinating but often mundane actions. “Open City” was one of the first examples of this kind of film, but we’ve seen versions of it in different countries and in different media. “The Wire” and “Treme” had a neorealist strain, and during the aesthetic peak period of Iranian cinema, the ‘80s and ‘90s, some of the greatest movies were stocked with “actors” who were more or less playing themselves.

    None of this is meant to imply that anything in “Sacro GRA” feels fake.  But all of these people are playing themselves in a way.  Rosi spent two-and-a-half years shooting interviews and gathering footage all around the highway and another eight months editing the material into something that has at least an intimation of shape and purpose. The strongest moments have the intimacy of documentary footage captured by a diligent filmmaker who just kept hanging around and hanging around until his subjects finally forgot he was there. He keeps returning to a couple of apartments in a high-rise, shooting down through an un-curtained picture window at his subjects, who not only had to give him permission to spy on them in this way but had to be properly wired for sound as well. There’s a scene near the end between one of the paramedics and his aged mother that’s so sweet and essentially private that watching it, I thought that this is what it must feel like to be a ghost or angel who can loiter unseen, watching people live their lives.

    The movie has a magnificent eye for caught beauty. Sometimes the play of blurry taillights on a freeway or the silhouettes of people talking in front of a sunlit window in a dark room have the richness of large-scale abstract art or oil-painted portraits, yet somehow these rarely feel fussed-over or posed. The movie does seem scattered and incomplete at times, though whether this feels like a feature or a bug (as a computer programmer might put it) will depend on what you want out of the experience. I found the whole thing beguiling and ultimately touching. If it lingers in the imagination (and it has lingered in mine) it’s because Rosi and his collaborators don’t seem to have any agenda besides capturing the small but important moments in real people’s lives, the kinds of fleeting emotional transactions that movies rarely think to show us.

     There are intimations of  decay and regeneration in the parings of younger and older people, as well as in the images of the scientist obsessing over how to kill those infernal beetles that are eating their way through the palm trees (the audio of the bugs gnawing and tunneling sounds hideous, like sound effects from a horror flick). But in the end, the movie leaves us with a “same as it ever was” feeling. Early in "Sacro GRA" there's a long shot of a stretch of highway near a field. After a moment, a herd of sheep enters the shot from frame-right, bleating and milling about. Here we get the sense that the city has not so much overtaken or destroyed nature as incorporated it, or that perhaps nature has incorporated the city. There's a similar sense of overlap in the movie's observation of different relationships, especially ones where the different parties are separated by a considerable age gap but find a way to communicate or coexist. That the same film could have been made fifty years ago, and could be made again fifty years from now, testifies to both its sturdy construction and its wise decision to fixate on the basics of existence and leave the superimposition of finer meaning to the audience.




    Original: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/sacro-gra-2013
    By: Matt Zoller Seitz
    Posted: October 31, 2016, 2:04 pm

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