By Brandon Konecny.
Pavel Cuzuioc is a filmmaker with a flair for creating thoughtful meditations on working-class people, and he doesn’t diverge from this course in his recent documentary Secondo Me (2016), which concerns three employees at different European opera houses. Given its settings and Italian title (which means “in my opinion”), we’d perhaps be forgiven for assuming that the film centers on three cast members from an Italian opera. But the film isn’t about professional performers, let alone music. In fact, despite the importance of these sumptuous opera houses in the film, Secondo Me offers no direct access to opera’s boisterous arias, recitatives, or orchestral overtures. The only music we get is the faint sound of the orchestra, muffled by the walls that contain it. And that’s just as well, because Secondo Me is a film about the people outside those walls—in this case, three cloakroom attendants.
The film follows Flavio Fornasa, who works at Teatro All Scala Milan; Ronald Zwanziger, who works at the renowned Vienna State Opera; and Nadezhda Sohotskaya, who works at the Odessa State Opera. Initially, these subjects appear to have little in common other than their occupations. Flavio, for example, is an assertive man with a tendency to launch into off-the-cuff expositions on history and revolutionary politics, while Ronald is a pleasant, modestly attired guy who enjoys discussing his wife and weight-loss ambitions with colleagues. Nadezhda is perhaps the most distinctive of them all. She’s more occupied with the well-being of others than with current events or self-care activities, spending most of her free time talking about her late husband and her grandson who’s studying abroad. As the film progresses, though, we begin to sense that the commonalities between Flavio, Ronald, and Nadezhda extend farther than mundane details like their job titles. With admirable subtlety, Cuzuioc reveals that each of them have spouses, children, and memories which could fill pages too voluminous to take in during one lifetime.
Granted, reflections on the lives of ordinary people isn’t new ground for Cuzuioc. All his films have, in one way or another, broached the same general topic. In Digging for Life (2010), for instance, Cuzuioc documents, often in attentive handheld shots, the activities of gravediggers and their unexpectedly sagacious perspectives on mortality. Similarly, Raisa (2015), Cuzuioc’s first fiction film, depicts a young woman, played by talented Romanian actress Cristina Flutur, who travels to a stranger’s house to purchase a breast implant after her mastectomy, the evidence of which she conceals under her overcoat until the film’s conclusion.
What is new ground for Cuzuioc, though—and what makes his film so entrancing—is his strategy for unearthing the linkages between oft-forgotten people. In this respect, his method has become less explicit and, instead, more evocative, owing largely to his evolving approach to the way he elicits on-camera responses from his subjects and coordinates stylistic devices. He doesn’t directly interview Flavio, Ronald, and Nadezhda on screen; and, save for a few brief occasions, they never acknowledge his camera’s presence, carrying on as they would during their day-to-day routine, with Cuzuioc’s camera as an all-perceiving, yet undiscovered, onlooker. His camera placement adopts a similar unobtrusive style, as he sparingly uses handheld shots or close-ups, instead opting for unhurried static shots that observe the attendants’ actions and conversations from afar. Most importantly, Cuzuioc has perfected an editing method unmatched by his previous films. He seamlessly toggles between the lives of these three subjects in a manner that creates a smooth, legato-like connection between them, mirroring the overlooked links between these seemingly disparate people and the boundless reservoir of human experience. The effect of these inconspicuous devices is that it leaves the task of discerning the importance of the film’s images to the audience, making Cuzuioc resemble Flaubert’s idea of a divine author: “present everywhere and visible nowhere.”
But it would be shortsighted to claim that Secondo Me sets out merely to instill in its audience nothing more than sympathy for Flavio, Ronald, and Nadezhda. It asks us to consider our own connections with those we fail to notice, and it’s a feeling to which I can attest. After viewing the film, I recalled my recent attendance to the symphony and the elderly man who handed my wife and me our programs. His details, which escaped me that night, erupted in my mind like an explosion. There was the man’s tweed jacket, complete with elbow patches. There was his straight, straw-like gray hair, which, despite the man’s age, clung firmly to his scalp. These minutiae made the man seem like a real, three-dimensional person, not just some employee or anonymous figure in my memory. That’s what makes Secondo Me so insistently humanizing. It encourages its audience to contemplate the idea that, out of the vast amount of people who populate the locations we inhabit, each one of them has a whole universe of memories and feelings and sorrows that is just as real as our own.
Brandon Konecny is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.