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Documenting the Peculiarities of an Early-20th-Century Roman Department Store

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Rä Di Martino, “The Show MAS Go On” (2014), still from video

There’s one place you shouldn’t miss when visiting Rome. It’s neither the Colosseum nor St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s the Magazzino allo Statuto (MAS), or the “departments stores of Via Statuto,” named after the street on which this legendary store in Rome is located. Opened at the beginning of the 20th century at the dawn of modern consumerism, the department store was the city’s biggest luxury emporium in the 1930s and became a symbol of the Italian economic boom during the ’50s.

Over the years, Romans have referred to MAS at the “magazzini del popolo,” or the “people’s store” — a place to buy clothes at a very cheap price. While the grandeur of the bygone days survives in the (fake?) chandeliers, hanging in midair and now almost fallen to ground level, MAS features the most peculiar mix of garments and people, incorporating the concept of the stall into the department store. Throughout the decades unsold goods have been kept on display on the innumerable shelves of the shop, so that the whole place has acquired the unmistakable sense of abandon that is MAS’s strongest feature. The decaying shop retains a domestic touch, the same you’d find exploring your grandmother’s attic.

Clothes are packed on every shelf and rack available, divided by type. Walking through the thousands of square meters of the shop, one is overwhelmed by the amount of stuff available to shoppers: walls and walls of faded military jackets and dusty suits, heaps of t-shirts and polo shirts from floor to ceiling, countless chests of stockings, bras, and briefs.

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Rä Di Martino, “The Show MAS Go On” (2014), still from video

Fashion has never been so unfashionable as at MAS. Through the decades, unsold pairs of original bell-bottom pants from the ’70s have come in and out of fashion several times. No one has noticed it; no one really cares. The shop’s trading policy “earn a little but sell a lot” and the unique experience of the place attract the most diverse crowd: retirees, young radical-chic Romans, fashionistas looking for inspiration, families of immigrants, and costume and set designers. People are free to touch, rummage, and try on everything. At MAS, drag queens shop next to nuns.

When in November 2013 rumors spread that MAS was to close, Roman artist Rä di Martino decided to make a film, now available online, inspired by the store and its history. Initially supported through a crowdfunding website, “The Show MAS Go On” eventually gained the support of fashion iconic brand Gucci, ironically enough.

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Rä Di Martino, “The Show MAS Go On” (2014), still from video

In the 30-minute film, the artist alternates between documentary footage and other genres such as musical and noir. In a surreal climax, Rä di Martino mixes archival photographs documenting the heyday of the shop with footage of shoppers at the current MAS, inserting an unexpected musical scene and even staging a short remake of an episode of The Twilight Zone

The general effect perfectly matches the surreal soul of the place, capturing MAS’s alienating feeling and its appealing disrepair. The banality and cheapness of its premises become themselves characters of the documentary.

Most importantly, Rä di Martino has managed to pay an invaluable tribute to a symbol of one of the most genuine sides of Rome: a sincere expression of popular culture, hopelessly old-fashioned, contradictory, peculiar to the point of being grotesque, and, of course, beautiful.

The Show MAS Go On” premiered at the 2014 Venice Film Festival and is now available online

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