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Still from “Spettacolo” (2017) (© 2017 Open Face LLC)

A brilliantly embedded, gently embellished documentary of sorts, and one whose bedding is itself a matter of documentaristic embellishment, Spettacolo takes you deep inside the harrowing history and heartbreaking present tense of a gem-like hilltop paesino in Tuscany — Monticchiello, population 136.

Not quite a regional locality with the touristic draw of Florence, Siena, Pisa or Arezzo, tiny Monticchiello has nonetheless a particular claim to artistic fame, that of the rigidly town-centric autodramma. This translates roughly as ‘self-drama’ or ‘drama of the self,’ and it was born out of the village’s profoundly self-reflective practices of ‘poor theater,’ teatro povero, in which the townspeople themselves, as the actors and collaborative authors, allow their own lives to be “transformed into a spectacle.”

Such was not always the case. Although the quite simple staging and setting in the town’s main piazza have remained consistent, a number of the earlier productions appropriated classical narratives in the form of costume dramas. Then one year around five or so decades ago, with hardships mounting as their land-driven ways of life became increasingly obsolete, the townspeople decided to remove the impersonal mask of traditional narratives to tell, instead, their very own story — and thereafter, many more of their very own stories.

Their first such tale did not recount Monticchiello’s founding, but rather its more historically recent re-founding: an astonishing account of how one heroic woman’s bravery and touch of good fortune saved the entire town from a surely catastrophic fate at the hands of the Nazis in World War II. The production had a kind of cathartic effect on the townspeople in general, as well as the therapeutic virtue of granting them real creative agency. It was at this point that the theatrical tradition of a humble collective began to take over the entire town, both spatially and existentially, on an annual basis — year in and year out, one summer after another, and via just as many vicissitudinous narratives. As such, Spettacolo‘s directors, Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen, have taken this re-founding tale of fear and salvation, through cleverly selected archival footage, as a transitional moment to set their own timely story on its way.

Timely, as in relevant to today? In this context of folksy theater in a tiny town in Tuscany? Indeed. For what the thrust of the film documents is the full creative arc, over the course of a year, of a very recent autodramma devoted to today’s concerns of economic hopelessness, lost livelihoods, and ailing if not failing democracies. It’s not the thematically light, positivo play some of the participants might’ve preferred to perform, but it’s one they feel is too important not to put on.

And so, as it goes, divisiveness breaks out among the elder actors whose common pasts once bound them together. And the town’s youth, the true hope for the continuation of the autodramma tradition, is losing interest. And financial speculation and real estate ventures enter the picture. And the play’s big backing bank goes suddenly bankrupt. And that’s not unrelated to austerity measures and EU-wide crises. And those are not unrelated to global recession. And so on and so forth as Monticchiello’s hyperlocal woes reflect continental and international trends. In a sense, ‘timely’ is basically understatement.

Despite all that, Spettacolo is topical in a number of optimistic ways as well, and its turns of humor as are endearing and amusing as its impeccable photography is visually delightful. What’s more, though you certainly don’t need a primer on Italian artistic, literary or cinematic history to appreciate this winning, winsome film, it’s also very rewarding to watch with certain names and terms in mind: the Medici family, commedia dell’arte, Goldoni, Pirandello, neorealist ‘rules’ and aesthetics, arte povera, and Fellini and Pasolini, to name just some. They’re all in there in this unique, exquisitely blended cinematic mescolanza.

Moving, maddening, heroic, tragic, enlightening, revelatory, timely and steeped in time, sad yet bursting with mirth, Spettacolo is without doubt, in many ways and on many levels, consummate spectacle.

Spettacolo (2017), directed by Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen, is distributed by Grasshopper Film.

Paul D'Agostino

Paul D'Agostino, Ph.D. is an artist, writer, translator and curator. He is former Art Editor at Brooklyn Magazine and The...