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SXSW Film Review: ‘Spettacolo’

Variety logo Variety 3/15/2017 Dennis Harvey
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Jeff Malmberg’s 2010 “Marwencol” memorably depicted one man’s bizarre form of self-expression: an elaborate, doll-scaled WWII European battleground miniature on which a rural New Yorker works out PTSD issues from a violent assault. Malmberg’s latest documentary, co-directed with Chris Shellen, focuses on a very different type of art therapy in a very different place. “Spettacolo” follows the yearlong preparations — perhaps the final year — for an annual theatrical presentation in which the residents of a small Tuscan village enact and examine pressing issues in their collective lives.

With less believe-it-or-not curiosity value than its predecessor, this handsomely crafted Italian-language portrait offers more conventional armchair-travel pleasures: Though at its core the film is about a dying way of life, the location and photography here are so beguiling that they semi-perversely encourage just the kind of foreign tourism that factors into that slow death.

With its current population of 136, Monticchiello is just a speck on the map, albeit an exceptionally picturesque one, seated for a thousand years on a hilltop in the Siena countryside, surrounded by vineyards. During WWII, the population was nearly slaughtered by Nazis for harboring anti-fascist partisans; legend has it only a resident German woman’s intervention saved them. Some years later, the citizens decided to do something different instead of the usual innocuous summer historical pageant: They would perform their own recent history in a show — including that standoff against Axis forces. Thus “the concept of autodrama was born,” creating Teatro Povero, which for most of its 50-plus years since has operated under the artistic directorship of Andrea Cresti.

Cresti is now a genteel 75-year-old who can look back on a long line of original plays (glimpsed in archival photos and occasional footage) that addressed a constantly changing menu of concerns for Monticchiellans: shifts in their traditionally agricultural economy, women’s new social roles, the flight of youth to better prospects in cities and abroad, etc. Today, the urgent issues involve the character and survival of Montichiello itself — and its annual spettacolo — as a seemingly never-ending economic crisis appears intent on destroying villages like theirs for good.

This much-referenced crisis is not explained for the benefit of non-Italian viewers. But it’s easy enough to suss out that it’s primarily a mix of pervasive current globalization, along with the corruption that eternally figures into Italian government and finance. In short, the little guy is getting the shaft, even more than has traditionally been the case. There are also the mixed feelings generated by the fact that, like most picturesque little Tuscan hamlets, this one is increasingly being bought up by rich visitors whose gated homes are simply vacation spots inhabited for a few weeks per year. They bring money, but very little else to sustain a dying culture.

As important as the play is to Montichiello’s identity, it’s increasingly difficult for Cresti to stage — his loyal participants are dying off, the few youngsters around aren’t very interested, and yet another banking scandal robs Teatro Povero of its last remaining major sponsor. “Spettacolo” ends with the rather tortuous development/rehearsal process duly climaxing in a 51st opening night. But it’s uncertain whether the event has a viable future, with or without its fed-up leader.

Though welcomed into that creative process, Malmberg and Shellen decline to press their luck by nosing too far into anyone’s off-stage life. We scarcely get to know anyone save Cresti, and while the film’s production notes reveal he’s a painter and sculptor descended from Italian royalty, those rather compelling facts are nowhere in the film itself. The brief peeks we get of past plays (and the new one) suggest Dario Fo-like sociopolitical satire with avant-garde staging touches, but there’s no attempt to view them from a larger artistic context, as something more than community expression.

These limitations would be more frustrating if “Spettacolo” weren’t such a lyrical love letter to the area — intentionally or not, constituting a siren song as persuasive as all those books about Provence. Medieval structures that probably aren’t very comfortable to live in are nonetheless delightful to look at, as is everything else along Montichiello’s steep cobblestone streets and in its gorgeous surroundings. One would like to spread the golden sunlight that suffuses Malmberg’s photography on a piece of bread, with prociutto, and have it for lunch. Lele Marchitelli’s score underlines the general air of relaxed, folksy, centuries-old charm.

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