Monday, September 4, 2017

An Italian town brought to amazing, unusual life in Malmberg/Shellen's SPETTACOLO

You've got to hand it to Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen: In terms of finding unusual and meaningful subjects for their documentaries -- first Marwencol and now SPETTACOLO -- they rate with the best. Better yet, they don't simply find these subjects, they cover them well and truly, too. In the former documentary, we discovered a man who, after a brutal beating from which he nearly died, created his own World War II-based universe inhabited by dolls.

In their new documentary, the filmmakers (shown above, with Ms Shellen on the right) take us to a small, beautiful town, Monticchiello (below and further below), in Tuscany, Italy, in which its inhabitants present a yearly play, written and performed by the townspeople and attended by folk from all over, which details the townspeople's lives, problems and deepest concerns.

Both these films (the former directed by Mr. Malmberg, the latter by both him and Ms Shellen), along with Jeremy Workman's moving and provocative Magical Universe, prove as good a reason for watching documentaries as any films I know.

An additional perk here is that, for people who already love legitimate theater, as well as movies themselves, Spettacolo offers even more. In the course of this 91-minute doc about what you might describe as "living theater," not only do we get, in one particular scene, a kind of coup de théâtre, the movie pretty much becomes one of these in and of itself.

Immediately we meet the man, Andrea Cresti (above), who is in charge of each year's production. It is he who we get to know best, as he organizes, induces, cajoles and rehearses his friends and neighbors into getting ready for this year's production.

The filmmakers cleverly allow us to acknowledge their presence, as one of the townspeople, early on, points out that another is trying to be "funny for the camera." The play being presented here is extremely political, too. And this is not something forced into the picture. No, the townspeople's concerns this year turn out to be as current and important as those throughout so much of the rest of the world.

There's plenty of wit to be found here, too: One of the lines in the play -- "The government wipes its brow; our economy is saved!" -- is (perhaps intentionally) flubbed to that of  "The government wipes its butt...."We're also privy to the differences of opinion concerning what exactly this year's play should be about. Some people would prefer a subject light and fluffy -- just entertainment -- while others want to confront reality and maybe kick it in the teeth.

A big problem for this theater -- as it is for legitimate theater worldwide -- is inducing young people to join in and be part of the theatrical process, as either participants or audience. We witness this as Andrea tries (and fails) to convince one young man to join the troupe again this year. Even Andrea's son has moved on; he runs a local Bed & Breakfast in town, explaining to us that, "The future of Monticchiello is tourism."  We also view the young woman who schedules rehearsals, trying to work around the evening's sports event on television -- which means that tonight's rehearsal will begin at 10, even 10:30 pm.

In the course of the film we view rehearsals and arguments, get quite a good dose (via archival photos, above and below) of past productions, and meet and get to know, at least briefly, a good number of townspeople. Because the play's subject this year deals with politics, corruption, the economy, and the disparity between wealthy and poor, what suddenly happens midway through the documentary to the theater's prime financial sponsor could not be more succulently or sadly ironic.

And through it all remains Andrea: the community's, as well as the play's, fuse and ignition. We don't get to see the final play performed, of course, just the opening moments. But we understand it well from what we've viewed already. This documentary should attract a whole new audience to Monticchiello. Whether or not its yearly play will continue.... who knows?

From Grasshopper Film, in mostly Italian (with English subtitles) and a little English now and then, Spettacolo opens tomorrow, Wednesday, September 6, in New York City at the Quad Cinema, and in the weeks to come in cities across the country (it will hit the Los Angeles area on September 29 at Laemmle's Moncia Film Center). To see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, click here and then scroll down to click on Where to Watch

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