By Jeremy Carr.
There was no plan to launch an annual undertaking where the residents of Monticchiello, a small Tuscan village, would enact theatrical renderings of their own lives in an open-air piazza performance. According to the neighborly troupe’s director, Andrea Cresti, it happened purely by chance. In any event, here they are, and in Spettacolo (2017), the new documentary from Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen, one sees how this yearly project came to fruition, and how, for better or worse, it continues to evolve with the changing times.
In this town of 136 people (as of 2012, when the film was shot), the Teatro Povero di Monticchiello has been a regular event since the 1960s, with initial conferences taking place in the winter and the staged performance occurring that following summer. At first, the locals adapted “ancient tales,” common costume dramas; eventually, they set their sights on the more recent and distinct. One of the earlier productions, and one of the more painful to remember let alone portray, involved the actors recreating a fateful April day in 1944, when a regional band of partisans stood up against the encroaching Fascists. Some who performed in that play had actually taken part in the standoff, including an elderly lady credited with essentially saving the community at the time. Soon, the plays took on more modern themes and narratives, as a sort of year-in-review or a histrionic analysis of current events. These so-called “autodramas” began to increase in scope, cost, and crowd size, and word spread about this unique routine.
Part melodramatic exercise and editorial study, part cathartic release and expressive meditation, these shows are animated outlets in which the citizenry address any number of issues, from a variable economy to exploitative land development. But as Spettacolo begins, and ideas are tossed around in a town-hall style brainstorm session, some express concern that the applicants are too dour. “Don’t we have any positive thoughts?” asks one resident, troubled by the pervasive pessimism. But this cynical direction is not without cause. There is considerable anxiety brewing in Monticchiello, a suspicion that the world is utterly hopeless and even this secluded populace is caught in a never-ending national struggle (Malmberg and Shellen occasionally hone in on the front page of a local newspaper, where the headlines reflect and explain this unease). This becomes the jumping-off point for the season’s production, a story about the end of the world; not necessary a literal apocalypse, but a moral, social, and spiritual state of disrepair and depression.
Like any other backstage drama, Spettacolo, Italian for “show” or “performance,” spotlights the mounting pressure on a director (Andrea says the lifecycle of a wild fennel plant acts as a roadside countdown to opening night), it details the practical matters of stage construction and set design, and it illustrates the disputes that inevitably arise between creative collaborators, over differing visions and interpretations. Affording an operative dose of humanity to the dramaturgical, Malmberg and Shellen also emphasize the daily interactions of the townsfolk, the banal events of their regular life: setting up shop for the workday, sweeping the steps of an apartment building, chatting idly on an alleyway bench. Though the “play’s the thing,” the cast has other things to do; for many, the diversion is a second job, so they rehearse their lines while driving, while at work, or while doing the laundry. Whether they are discussing the tentative future or the complex past, those in Monticchiello are natural storytellers, so the theater seems an ideal outlet for their musings. The play itself acts as an arbitrator of sorts, a communal intermediary for individual apprehensions. There is an evident freedom in this artistic buffer, but to expose themselves as they do, the participants must also submit to a deep understanding of one another, built on respect and trust. There’s a touching vulnerability in that.
With the spring and summer months come the tourist season, an endless parade of smartphone photographers and an outside invasion that is both an economic boon and a tedious hindrance (one prior play was set in a grocery store, where the land of the village was sold and consumed as if it were a supermarket special). Malmberg and Shellen, a married couple sharing director credit on the picture (he is also the cinematographer and editor and she worked on the sound), took time to learn Italian before making Spettacolo, and they apparently moved to the region some time beforehand. From this, there is in the film a corresponding, perhaps contradictory sense of the intimate outsider. On the surface, Malmberg’s exquisite brochure photography captures the tranquility of the area, the sun-kissed rustic hamlet, and the openness of the surrounding countryside. Yet on a more substantially proximate level, by incorporating a well-orchestrated synthesis of stills, archival footage, recordings of past productions, and contemporary interviews, Spettacolo becomes a fascinating, multimedia chronicle of “the town that plays itself.”
This is an endangered endeavor, though, and toward the end, Spettacolo takes shape as an elegiac testament to the disintegrating custom. Throughout the film, there is the notion that this annual preoccupation is ultimately unsustainable, at least as it once was. Those involved reflect with humor and sadness on the importance of keeping traditions alive, but the aging population, while they still care, also grows exhausted; Alpo, one of the founders of the theater group, is now plagued by Alzheimer’s, making all too real the frailty of memory. Meanwhile, the young people are increasingly scarce and indifferent. Adding insult to injury, during the course of the film, a vital sponsor of the play, one of Italy’s largest banks, is raided and investigated as part of international monetary scandal. The Monticchiello ensemble receives a statement that underscores one of Spettacolo’s primary refrains and signals the uncertain endurance of its subject. There is, the unexpectedly profound note declares, “no money for culture.”
Jeremy Carr is a Faculty Associate at Arizona State University and a visiting research fellow with the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture. He has written for the publications Cineaste, CineAction, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Bright Lights Film Journal, The Moving Image, and Moving Pictures Magazine.