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A scene from Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen’s Spettacolo (all images courtesy of Grasshopper Film)

In today’s America, with a so-called populist leading the charge to defund the country’s arts community, a world where populism and art work together toward empowering the common man might seem like a utopian fantasy. However, for the past 50 years, the denizens of a small Tuscan town have banded together for annual theatrical performances that address and engage with these very civic concerns. In directors Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen’s documentary Spettacolo, which opens September 6 at Quad Cinema, the people of Monticchiello see art as a tool to promote populism rather than a distraction from its goals.

Spettacolo is the logical follow-up to Malmberg’s directorial debut Marwencol, which Shellen produced. Marwencol is the tale of Mark Hogancamp, who, after being brain-damaged following a 2000 assault in Kingston, NY, created a World War II town in his backyard using dolls and action figures. Characters draw names, backgrounds, and relationships from Hogancamp’s friends and acquaintances. His realistic photographs of these tableaux eventually drew art-world validation. At 1:6 scale, Hogancamp wrestled with the frustrations of his disability in a way that also had aesthetic value.

Although Monticchiello’s productions were originally lavish costume dramas, the town’s Teatro Pobre (“poor theater”) — also known as the spettacolo (“spectacle”) — has become another example of personal struggles fueling art. The scope of the film is extended to incorporate many points of view from the town’s fewer than 200 citizens; Malmberg and Shellen show collaborative sessions and rehearsals that include people in all age brackets, from babies to the elderly. The filmmaking in these segments is impeccable. As a player discusses topics, like gentrification or the economy, that they hope to address in that year’s production, the camera focuses more on the faces of the listeners. In this way, we are shown that one person’s issues are less important than the extent to which those issues resonate with his or her neighbors.

A scene from Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen’s Spettacolo

The buy-in of everyone in the company is crucial to the process of the yearly production because of the sheer effort involved. Shots of silent work, like the construction of a stage that is a gnarly tangle of mismatched wood, show the extent of players’ labor, which is as underappreciated as it is unpaid. During one montage, actors practice their lines in clothing stores, behind the wheel of a car, while cooking, and in other strange scenarios. In a particularly evocative suggestion of how much the annual production permeates the lives of the townspeople, Malmberg and Shellen present conversations that exist in a gray area between rehearsed and unrehearsed. Three men sit on a bench discussing their lives. During their back-and-forth, one comments, “The [financial] crisis is for us poor people.” This dialogue is polished and pointed to the extent that it, along with the stylized framing of the trio consigned to the right of the frame, appears premeditated. By blurring the lines between truth and fabrication, the filmmakers convey the extent to which Teatro Pobre has seeped into everyday life in Monticchiello.

Beyond the philosophizing, the financial crisis is a villain working behind the scenes throughout Spettacolo. Villagers repeatedly use the shorthand of “the crisis” to describe contemporary financial conditions and the crippling effects they have on village life. Many frames also contain newspapers heralding the latest devastation that the crisis has caused. The front page of La Nazione — framed in a sandwich board — shares stories of financial despair; a typically drastic headline reads “FIRED – ‘I’m selling a kidney to live.’” Through repetition of the word “crisis” and the visual omnipresence of newspapers that only bring bad news, it becomes clear that the wolves are at the door of the Teatro Pobre.

A scene from Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen’s Spettacolo

However, the biggest threat to the spettacolo’s continued existence is internal: Residents of Monticchiello grow less interested in continuing the community theater with each generation. Young people are drawn to friends and football over theater, and some residents view the yearly production as more of a burden than a blessing. As a member of the theater company discusses this shift in perception, archival shots of past productions with boxes or grids in the set design echo this view of the play as a prison. It’s no surprise when a townsperson adopts the term “crisis” to refer to the lack of community commitment.

While conditions like the instability of the chief sponsor, Monte dei Paschi bank, threaten the future of the Teatro Pobre, its ultimate downfall might stem from the indifference of the very people it represents. As the film closes, the theater’s director offers a grim prognosis for the future of his theater and, eventually, Monticchiello itself, which he predicts will become a vacant town full of vacation homes without culture. Spettacolo is a cautionary tale for the American arts community, offering an example of what can happen when populist art is marginalized and threatened by the very people who stand to benefit most from it.

A scene from Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen’s Spettacolo

Spettacolo began an exclusive New York engagement at Quad Cinema (34 West 14th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) on September 6.

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Jon Hogan

Jon Hogan lives in Forest Hills, Queens, and does things with film and comics. Those things include journalism, fundraising, and curation. Take a peek at the things he sees on Instagram.