By Liam Lacey
A beautiful, melancholic rumination on the struggle to preserve cultural tradition in the face of modern economic forces, the documentary Spettacolo (“spectacle” or “play” in Italian) begins with a brief black-and-white archival clip of the long, tree-lined road up the hill to the fortified medieval town of Montecchiello, to the town square where actors are performing in the open air. As we switch to colour, we see the staging of a different play, though the backdrop remains the same: The town's archway entrance, the stone buildings, and narrow cobbled streets.
A narrator speaks in Italian with subtitles: "I think it was by chance. We turned our lives into play... at a certain point the play wasn't just an annual event, it was a lifetime event. And so, our life became one long play."
While this might be an absurdist Italian fable, it is entirely real. Each year, the townsfolk (pop: 136) of Montecchiello, about an hour's drive southwest of Sienna, create and perform an "autoplay" about their history and present problems. This is not some medieval ritual. The tradition began in the last half of the 1960s by actors in their 20s and 30s as part of the late-60s' alternative theatre that tapped into Montecchiello's particular sense of existential vulnerability.
The first production which kicked off the cycle of these "autodramas" reenacted a spring day in 1944, when a contingent of German soldiers entered in the town, searched the houses for anti-Fascist partisans and lined up the population to be shot. They were saved by the intervention of a German woman, who happened to have been born in the same town as the SS Commander.
In the decades since, the young and old have joined the annual production, often addressing new threats to the town. Some residents play characters year after year, while others work behind the scenes. The actors age into new roles: The heroic lead of 40 years ago is the wise elder of today. Collectively, each year, they agree on a theme and create the story. Subjects have included the women's movement, invasive tourism, real estate speculation and income inequality. One year chronicled people debating over what to make as the subject of their play.
In 2012, the year most of the film was shot, American co-directors Jeff Malmberg (who made the amazing outsider artist documentary, Marwencol in 2010) and his wife, Chris Shellen lived in the town for six months. They followed director Andrea Cresti, a philosophical long-haired painter in his 70s, as he shepherded a production through a series of discussions, writing, rehearsal, and crises. We see that the year-round act of creating the play is more significant than its actual ephemeral existence, which takes place for a few nights in July and August before a mixed audience of locals and tourists.
But as the town’s population has shrunk, the play has become more central: What was once, as one resident explained, a way of amusing themselves on a summer's evening, has become something else. For many in the town, the play has the burden of a second, unpaid job, but also a collective preoccupation. One of the loveliest sequences is a montage of townspeople going about their daily work — a chef, a school teacher, a man hanging laundry and another driving his car — while they rehearse their lines.
There are also clear cues that we are approaching a final curtain call here. There are deaths and illness of veteran cast members, a loss of funding and a stubborn depression following economic crisis of 2007. The year's theme is The End of the World, a protest against what one resident calls the "barbarity of modernism." When the theatre's main sponsor, the bank, is shuttered in a financial scandal, and the regional government closes down cultural funding, the title seems all the more appropriate. Still, the show goes on, and will continue to, imagines Cresti, until the town has become a simulacrum of itself, a medieval-themed vacation village, and perhaps one remaining actor will be the repository for the old village's memories.
Throughout, the filmmakers remain invisible, embedding themselves in the life of the town and its daily rhythms over a period of months. The melancholic theme is countered by vicarious pleasure in their surroundings, the glorious countryside from such movies Call Me By Your Name or Stealing Beauty. Grey-haired men sit on a bench in front of the local Osteria and debate about the issues in the play. Cats and pigeons look on from the rooftops as the sets are struck in the evening shadows of the plaza.
The camera turns to the cyprus-lined curving roadway to the town: bare grape trellises in winter, brown to green undulating hills in spring, wild fennel going to seed by the road sides in summer which says, Cresti, is his annual signal that this year's production must be ready to be seen.
Spettacolo. Directed by Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen. With Andrea Cresti. Opens February 9 at Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema and will be available for on Amazon Prime and iTunes on March 6.