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I freaked out when I heard that Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen’s new film Spettacolo would be premiering at SXSW this year. The two are some of the most exciting documentary filmmakers working today, and their previous feature, the utterly beautiful and devastating Marwencol, remains one of my favorite films released in the past decade. They’ve returned to a similar subject – one about crafting narratives as escapist joy and as self-analysis – but this time, they transport us to Italy to observe the creation of an “autodrama” (literally autobiographical theater) in a small town that’s been putting them on for years.
Spettacolo tells the story of Montichiello, a small town of 136 in Tuscany that puts on a yearly play in their city center, and would be otherwise unremarkable if not for the subject matter of the plays themselves. Years ago, the town decided to stop putting on their yearly takes on the classic folk tales and historical dramas and embraced their town’s history. They began making plays about themselves, starting with how the town was saved from the Nazis by the courage of a young woman from Leipzig, and from then on they’d produce plays about the mood of the town in that previous year. They went through the financial crisis, endured the encroachment of land-hungry foreigners who want to restore farm houses for their two week vacations, and remain strong and resilient. But everyone involved is getting older, and when the patriarch of the whole endeavor passes away and the bank holding the funds for the play folds, the entire tradition is put in jeopardy.
The magical realist film stylings of Marwencol are still here, but they’re a little more subdued, given the pace of life in Tuscany and the habits of its characters. Those expecting the crack and pop of that film will potentially be disappointed, as Spettacolo takes its time in documenting the creation of the play from the first writing meeting to the final bow. Much of the imagery of the film is of people in the solitary act of creation, from cooking to construction to writing, and much of the only interactions between the townsfolk we see in it are limited to rehearsals and planning meetings. The town itself is sun-bleached and old, with wandering lazy cats around every corner, and Malmberg and Shellen capture it beautifully. Behind compelling exterior is a truly beautiful and melancholy center, exploring the nature of tradition and of aging itself. There’s a time clock on this yearly event, one that is slowly evaporating as the older generation begins to fade away.
The topic of the play, as well, “the end of the world,” is painfully depressing to watch be developed and expressed by the townspeople. Over time, the plays started being expressions of the town’s fears in a changing world. Everyone seems frightened of the future and of losing their identities, and a few wish for the halcyon days of Berlusconi to come back and fix everything. It’s as if at any moment, Garcia Marquez’s wind could come and blow this town away, off the map, its stories and histories lost to time. Perhaps it’s best to view Malmberg and Shellen as attempting to preserve this tradition of “autodrama” beyond the participants’ interests and their life spans. They know this beauty may not be around forever, and so they capture it for the world over, to hear the stories of bravery and anxiety, to see the struggles that went into making this spectacular, and to witness a small town do the incredible.
I guess that’s all anybody can ask or hope: To be remembered.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus and use #VanyaSXSW for all Vanyaland’s ongoing coverage at South-By-Southwest 2017.