Every film festival has a few oddities, and this festival’s eccentric spot is filled by the loosely constructed documentary Sacro GRA from director Gianfranco Rosi. It’s an interesting film, but a hard one to recommend, unless you are a fairly curious and patient viewer wanting a comprehensive cross-section of current Italian film making.
Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Director: Gianfranco Rosi
Screenplay: Niccolò Bassetti and Gianfranco Rosi.
Runtime: 95 minutes.
Trailer: "Come to my place, I'm a cash box!"
Plot: Sacro GRA documents the citizens of outer suburbs of Rome, who live on the great city’s fringes and along a highway known as the Grande Raccordo Anulare or ‘Great Ring Junction.’ We meet a palm and fern tree fanatic, an aging aristocrat, a father and daughter living modestly, a paramedic, and a large cast of other fascinating characters. What unites them is their common geography, and the economic recession that seems to have left no aspect of Italian life untouched.
Festival Goers? Only for the dedicated.
Viewed as part of the Lavazza Italian Film Festival.
Review: Winner of the Golden Lion at the 70th Venice International Film Festival, Gianfranco Rosi’s Sacro GRA (literally “Holy Great Ring Junction”) is an attempt at painting an alla prima portrait of the many satellites that orbit the great beauty, Rome. Likened to the rings around Saturn within the film, the GRA is home to some of the hardest hit members of the Roman population during an ongoing global recession – and Rosi documents an eel fisher, Romans lucky to be in tiny apartments of public housing, women living out of their cars, and in the interest of balance an aging aristocrat firmly ensconced in his tacky mansion. The overall effect is very uneven; with moments proving riveting and funny, but the structure of the film and the inconsequential nature of its documenting too loose to amount to anything greater than the sum of its parts.
Rosi is undoubtedly aiming for the sort of fascinating, lightly directed anthropological study in the vein of previous documentaries he has directed, but here the anthropological element and common themes – apart from the generalised condition of an economic recession – is never captured, nor committed to film as a fundamental expression of the subject’s mode of being. Instead, the impression left is of a few good people passing through a dishevelled truck stop on a journey to somewhere else far more meaningful.
Some of the most engaging and funny scenes come from the slow, slightly staged documenting of the gentle nights of a local eel fisherman, who sets his nets in the Tiber during the day and patiently repairs them at night. He takes everything related to eels to heart, incredulously and amusingly reading a newspaper article on the subject to his wife, who pays little attention to his protestations. ‘We are in the hands of fools and ignoramuses!’ he declaims in one of the more loaded moments of the film, a sentiment and theme that Rosi’s documentary does little with. ‘And you just keep cutting and sewing; we’ll call you Penelope’ he laments half seriously, in one of the better Homeric quips you’ll see in a documentary.
But the additional subjects that Rosi adds to fill out the film fall into a well documented and entirely expected category of experience. On the fringes, a transvestite is pestered by a persistent customer with the drunken line ‘you’re sexy and you’ve got a dick,’ to which the begrudging response comes ‘I know I’m sexy, but don’t act this way.’ Similarly, there are moments with a father and daughter living in a new but single-room public housing project, with admittedly amusing but ordinary banter between a parent and teenager – ‘Instead of making fine speeches like a 19th century father, why don’t you go to bed?’ his whip-smart daughter suggests. In a section that adds little other than a bemused footnote to the subject-matter of the film, we also meet a rich and aging count who has shored up the family manor with some of the most tasteless, gold plated décor you are likely to see outside of a rapper’s crib. Accompanied by his younger, blonde wife he greets a tiny enthusiast delegation of the Order of Malta in his own grand regalia – one suspects, recently purchased. But these vanities, and a photo-comic that is shot in the pimped out manor, seem to belong to another film entirely. One suspects Rosi also puts his thumb on the scale; as one of the comics conveniently turns up in the fisherman’s wife’s hands later in the film.
A large part of the film is spent with a local palm enthusiast and entomologist who wages an unglamorous, very personal war against the bugs that are slowly devouring his beloved plants. Inserting sensitive sound recorders into the palms, he listens as ‘they chatter among themselves; such chattering has meaning even if it is devastating.’ He is full of poetic brio, remarking that ‘they [the bugs] don’t share our human condition’ as they exist within solid matter, and recording the screams of the larvae. He takes offence at their consumption – ‘the palm has the form of man’s soul’ he claims – and formulates plan after plan to rid the plant of the bugs, musing that ‘this is the prelude to revenge, my dears!’ Alongside his plight is an EMT worker, who labours while his wife is on holiday and visits his slowly fading mother in the most moving and tearful scenes of the film. One gets the sense that this was the documentary that Rosi wished to make – of the palm enthusiast, and the honestly affecting good proletarian – but that the material was resistant and stubborn, the events never really aligning or being able to capture the full sense of their story.
In compensation, Rosi gives us some fascinating glimpses into the lives of the others united in their locality but separate in their existences. The whole is not greater than the sum of its parts; never really coalescing into a statement about economic struggle in modern Italy, or the human condition, or any other thematic statement. ‘This goddamned ring road, fuck all the saints in heaven, I can’t take this anymore!’ one interviewee remarks, in another moment that could have been worked up into a thesis on the state of Modern Italy, but which Rosi never directly selects and pursues within his own approach to the film. What we are left with is some interesting moments and some emotionally touching plights, but no real insight into where that leaves us or them.
Rating: Three stars.