Original-Cin Q&A: Director Jeff Malmberg on the Convergence of Trauma, Ritual and Art

By Liam Lacey

Jeff Malmberg, director of the new documentary Spettacolo, is a 45-year-old American filmmaker with a 20-year background as an editor in non-fiction television. He has made just one other feature film as a director, though it’s a film many documentary fans hold in near-reverence.

That film is Marwencol about an outsider artist, Mark Hogancamp. After a vicious beating in 2000 that put him in a coma and left him with no memory, Hogancamp began building a model of an imaginary Nazi-occupied Belgian town, called Marwencol, peopled by doll alter egos of his friends and family, assailants and himself. (The town's name is a portmanteau of the names Mark, Wendy and Colleen). 

Director Jeff Malmberg with Andrea Cresti and his super-awesome cat.

Director Jeff Malmberg with Andrea Cresti and his super-awesome cat.

Malmberg's film about Hogancamps's life and work is a fascinating exploration of the uncanny relationship between trauma, ritual, and art. The film ended up on lots of critics' top 10 lists. A dramatized version of the story, The Women of Marwen, is set to be released next September, directed by Robert Zemeckis with Steve Carell in the lead.

Malmberg worked on Marwencol from 2006 to 2010. About a year before its completion, he and his wife, Chris Spellen (producer of Marwencol and co-director of Spettacolo) took a vacation to Tuscany. One evening before a dinner reservation, the couple walked through the medieval walled town of Montecchiello and passed an open doorway where they saw a long-haired man in his 70s, seated in his home studio, writing in longhand. Malmberg wished he had brought his camera to take a picture.

After a bit of research, he learned about a special theatre event that takes place in the city each summer. The man seen through the doorway was Andrea Cresti, a painter and former art professor, who has overseen the production of the community-created play for more than 50 years.

Read our review of Spettacolo

 There were links between Montecchiello and Marwencol. The first of Cresti’s "autodramas" was a re-enactment of the day, April 6, 1944, when Nazis occupied the town and threatened to execute the entire population. As with Marwencol, there were Nazis, a small community, and art arising from a traumatic near-death experience.  Once again, it's a story that plumbs the depths of what the poet Wallace Stevens called "the motive for metaphor."

"You're either compelled to do things or you’re not, and both these stories compelled me, though I wasn't immediately aware of the connections," says Malmberg, talking on the phone from Los Angeles.

"Initially, when I decided to move to Italy, I didn't know why I wanted to be doing it.  The first thing I did was translate Marwencol into Italian and showed it to at the local theatre.  The locals immediately got it and started a debate in the back of the theatre. What they were interested in was who in their town was supposed to be Mark and who were the dolls?  I guess at that point I really became aware that, in a way, it was the same story.

"You know, the funny part is that Mark, from Marwencol, and Andrea, from Spettacolo, have sort of become friends through me. Andrea paints these tiny paintings for Mark, which have now become part of the town of Marwencol."

People are always looking for examples of the power of art, says Malmberg, and a lot of the time it rings hollow.  The examples of Mark Holdencamp and the people of Montecchiello show what happens when art is at the centre of people's lives in a concrete way. It's not that Malmberg is saying this is necessarily positive.

"Tradition is such a capital T word, and it's always spoken of with such reverence. But what does that tradition look like 50 years into it? Does the kid think of this tradition when his father did it and his father's father did it, and he's expected to do it? To some degree, Andrea is dragging them through this.

"You quickly realize you were at the sunset of something, not the peak of something. After a couple of months, you start seeing the cracks in that idea, and partly you want to expose those cracks. You don't want to turn the whole village into ‘Once upon a time....’ I mean, was there ever really a ‘Once upon a time?’

"The film was both an attempt to honour them and kind of poke at them at the same time, to encourage them to decide where they want to go. Maybe it's time to adapt again.” 

When Malmberg and his wife first proposed the film to the people of the town in his pidgin Italian, proposing that they live in the town for a year and record the making of a play, most of the town's people laughed, says Malmberg.

"They've done it forever and they don't even think about it. But Andrea thought this was important for the world to see. And I kind of knew it would be a five-year project to do it right. It was always in my mind that it would give the people of the town a chance to watch themselves and consider where they were going."

Near the conclusion of Spettacolo, Andrea makes a melancholy prediction, that the year-round population of Montecchiello will continue to decline (it will only exist as a rich person's vacation destination) and the annual play will die out. But, as an artist, he of course has a desire to resist the probable and disappointing.

One of his ideas is to franchise the "autodrama" concept to other towns in the region, so other communities can hold a mirror up to their experience, to make sense of the past and try to take control of their futures. 

"I think Andrea sees it as a singular experience to this town, but he would love other places to do a similar thing," says Malmberg. "The people of Montecchiello are hoping this film will be a tool to inspire other communities."