Wednesday, September 10, 2014

'Sacro GRA' (2013) directed by Gianfranco Rosi

My theory was that a documentary that sounded so dull on paper simply had to be gripping on screen.  The subject: the Grande Raccordo Anulare or GRA, Rome's equivalent of London's M25 ring-road.  I figured that for a film-maker to pack up his equipment and devote a decent chunk of his time to documenting this life, then this must be the most goddamn fascinating urban traffic management project in the world.  It really isn't - but that's not the point.

Rosi's Rome is shorn of history; absent are Roman ruins and lofty views of St Peter's Basilica; replacing them are dowdy public housing projects, car parks, half-dead industrial ruins and examples of half-assed architectural modernism.  Stumbling around these spaces are an curious crew of society's dregs, centrifugally tossed outwards from the centre of the city.

As a fly on the wall we dispassionately observe the minutia of their lives; a laptop-fixated girl bickers with a bearded old man; women in a decrepit camper van eat mozzarella and discuss their charges for indecent exposure; an old man gets dressed up in a cape for some archaic ceremony; transsexual prostitutes haggle for prices on the pavement; a man chats to his senile mother; skeletal corpses are re-interred and so on. We drift between them as a ghostly, unacknowledged presence - taking in a random couple of minutes of their lives before moving on.  

The film is shot on a cheap looking digital camera; I'd guess equipment chosen for portability rather than for cinematic aesthetics.  Anyway, Rosi clearly isn't interested in trying to reveal the beauty of these grotty locations; rather to exacerbate their normality. The entire film is shot in perfect digital focus, the effect being a flattening of background, foreground and subject into one image.  With an reliance on pre-existing lighting, colours become desaturated and shadows bleed into one another.  This all adds up to a film that looks as if it might have been shot on an iPhone.

So what is Rosi trying to achieve here?  He's made a purposefully ugly film, stuffed it with a gaggle of disconnected no-hopers who appear to be ticking off the days until they're tossed into the ground.  The GRA road, always bustling away in the background, audible if not seen, becomes a symbol of economic activity.  A thousand headlights swoop around Rome, creating a ring of light - described in the opening credits as "like Saturn's ring".  Yet the people who co-exist with this monumental road are forgotten, living a nomadic, forgotten existence.

This juxtaposition of dynamic economic power and depressive static failure leads us down an irresistibly political path. Sacro GRA is a snapshot of a society teetering on the edge of catastrophe.  Rome (and by extension Italy and presumably the whole civilised world) has become rotten, a decomposing edifice sustained only by the memory of past glories.

The views of tiny, strip-lit box-apartments, television sets illuminating stained mattresses recall Orwell's 1984; a society without joy, clinging grimly onto some half-remembered past. There's a visual progression that takes us from these human matchboxes straight to a mausoleum; apartments ebing mirrored with holes for stacked coffins.  In creepy footage we see hazmat-suited workers dragging lead coffins from their holes, cutting them open and transferring these dry, papery skeletons to a pit on the outskirts of Rome, unceremoniously dumping them in the shadow of the GRA.

The conclusion of Rosi's argument uses palm weevils as a metaphor for these disparate Romans.  The film-maker himself is reflected in one of his subjects; an eccentric scientist/gardener making his way through the palm garden with a microphone and sound recording device.  He pokes the mic deep into the palm tree and amplifies the sounds inside, revealing a cacophony of chewing and squeaking - what he describes as "an orgy".

It's a none too subtle metaphor. The GRA becomes the bark of the palm tree, the innards Rome and so the citizens are insects locked into an apocalyptic cycle of consumption, reproduction and death.  Not exactly the feel good experience of the year.

While there's more than enough intellectual meat to chew on in Sacra GRA, the actual task of watching the film isn't particularly enjoyable.  The combination of deliberately uninspiring visuals and a ponderous pace meant that, while I appreciated the argument Rosi makes, frankly it was a bit difficult to keep my eyes open.  

Sacro GRA is firmly experimental cinema, relying entirely on an audience approaching it intellectually rather than for entertainment purposes.  It's reductive to describe it as "boring", but hell - it is boring.  But this is a purposeful brand of boring - boring with a point.  The closest point of comparison I can think of are Godard's 2010 Film Socialisme and Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub's 1982 Trop tôt, trop tard.  Both are similarly boring (and not hugely fun to watch) but in both you sense that careful reasoning has gone into showing an audience certain images, thus imploring you to analyse it as best you can.

Audience mileage for Sacro GRA largely depends on their tolerance for the avant-garde. Though enigmatic and fiercely idiosyncratic it's actually one of the more watchable examples of arty political cinema. That's not a huge compliment and (though I don't want to sound snooty) any mainstream audiences watching this will probably end up baffled and annoyed. It's difficult to assign a star rating to something this, but tellingly, writing about Sacro GRA was a hell of lot more fun than watching it.  

Make of that what you will.

Sacro GRA is released in the UK on 7th November

Tags: , , , , , ,

0 Responses to “'Sacro GRA' (2013) directed by Gianfranco Rosi”

Post a Comment

© All articles copyright LONDON CITY NIGHTS.
Designed by SpicyTricks, modified by LondonCityNights