SXSW Film Review – Spettacolo
Every year, the medieval-built town of Montichiello, Tuscany puts on a show: an “auto-drama” in which many of the town’s 120-some residents act as themselves, in a play they wrote, about their own lives. The documentary Spettacolo chronicles a year in the life of the small town and its ambitious production. It’s an entertaining, fascinating, at times joyous look at a tight-knit community that chose to work out its challenges on stage.
The day-to-day community life of Montinchiello is Spettacolo’s prime focus, and it treats the plays (of which a modest-if-satisfying amount is shown) as a clear extension of it. It’s a refreshingly low-key approach to something that could have been overwhelmed by its high-concept hook, becoming a grandiose meta-film about art swallowing life a la Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008). In Spettacolo (Italian for ‘play’ or ‘show’), however, when one resident half-jokingly suggests that year’s play should explore “the barbarism of modernity”, it’s a deflation of pretension rather than a retreat into it. The film’s storytelling style reflects the modesty of its focus. The audio-visuals are a conventional mix of new and archival footage of plays and town meetings, interviews, and establishing shots – all energetically paced and effectively integrate the production, place, and people into the same context. The film’s exploration of art and community builds on co-directors Chris Shellen’s and Jeff Malmberg’s previous documentary, Marwencol (2010), which followed an artist with brain damage who creates an elaborate historical diorama on which he stages World War II adventures with models of his friends. There, too, the filmmakers admirably aimed to de-mystify, depicting an atypical art project as inseperable from the community support network that participates in it.
For Montichiello, the play’s annual production cycle was “the right instrument for talking to each other”, an ongoing way to express and work through their thoughts, hopes, dreams, fears and relationships. As one resident remarks, the play isn’t ‘just an annual event, but a life-long one’. The town doesn’t slack on the artistry, either. The residents are talented actors, in addition to communicating in an expressive, Italian conversational style. It’s entertaining to watch them pitch ideas to each other, amid laughs and ambient coughs. They clearly know each other well, and their conversations are embedded with the joys and tensions that come with familiarity. It reminded me a lot of the community theatre near my hometown, an ambitious venue housed in a lovingly-refurbished old school gym, run by a core group of dedicated volunteers.
Having grounded the play within Montichiello’s residents’ personal experiences, the film effectively situates the town and its art within larger socio-economic trajectories of the region, Italy and world. The town’s productions depicted Montichiello’s residents’ resistance during World War II-era, which serves to the community as something of a foundational myth for living memory. In recent years, however, the production has had to account for the aging of its stalwart residents and performers. The play’s long-time director is succumbing to Alzheimer’s as the documentary begins. Many of the town’s young people are moving away. Others voice complaints that they would simply like to take summer vacations. Meanwhile, amid the town’s internal challenges, Monticihello’s “farmhouses” are being re-branded as vacation “villas” for wealthy urbanites – shown hiking into town with their suitcases.
Of course, these larger issues are also at the forefront of the town’s play itself, which is partially a platform for the residents to voice their concern to audiences, to tangibly display (lightly abstracted) real people affected by discussion points that might otherwise remain headlines and statistics. At one point the production features character haunted by apparitions Lehman Bros and Citicredit; another feature allusions to ‘an auction of our national heritage’. Stories like these wind up intersecting with the town in direct ways. The fly-on-the-wall nature of the camera does beg the question of what the town’s residents, so used to voicing their own concerns, thought of how outsiders chose to tell their tale. That is – however – a minor quibble. Spettacolo is an all-around great show.