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By Michael Sicinski

To say that Gianfranco Rosi’s Sacro GRA was a surprise winner at this year’s Venice Film Festival is something of an understatement. The film became the first documentary ever to win the Golden Lion, and was singled out by jury president Bernardo Bertolucci for its “poetic force,” and its “Franciscan” regard for individuals and spaces. Bertolucci went on to imply that the decision to award Rosi the Lion was unanimous, or at least that “no one proposed any other film” for the big prize.

The 70th Venice competition line-up was fairly poor, although it did contain several solid entries. It’s hard to imagine that it didn’t at least cross the minds of Bertolucci and the other jurors to perhaps award Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs, Miyazaki Hayao’s The Wind Rises, or Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, any of which would have been a more comprehensible winner. No matter; they clearly saw something special in Rosi’s film, or at the very least a plausible fulcrum for compromise. Having now seen the film for myself, Sacro GRA doesn’t exactly stand up in comparison with some of those other competition entries. What’s more, as the first documentary to take the Lion, one might well expect, if not some sort of landmark in the form, at least something nominally innovative. (This expectation is probably unfair, given the fact that the patently silly Fahrenheit 9/11 [2004] won the Palme d’Or. The less said about that, the better.) At first blush, Sacro GRA is a fairly conventional “snapshot of a city” film, with very little of the panoramic vision that the classical avant-garde city symphonies of Vertov and Ruttmann have bequeathed to the form.

So given what Rosi’s film doesn’t do, how might we come to terms with what it actually does accomplish? Well, first we can understand it in terms of what it is not. Sacro GRA represents a rather stark contrast with Rosi’s previous film, the almost comically austere El Sicario, Room 164 (2010). That film’s single-mindedness was its greatest virtue: Rosi spends the entire running time allowing a masked former hitman for a Mexican cartel to hide in a hotel room and divulge the secrets of his trade, complete with magic-marker diagrams. A riveting slow burn of a crime tale in the form of a one-man show, El Sicario was a critical success. It’s also perhaps worth noting that this was the film that represented a breakthrough of sorts for Rosi among North American festival programmers, who had ignored his three previous documentaries, by and large. (Rosi has received his most consistent support from the Viennale, with Venice, Cinéma du Reel, and other European fests providing their backing as well.)

Rosi’s follow-up, a sprawling state-of-the-nation address that uses the Grande Raccordo Anulare (or Great Ring Road) that circles greater Rome as its formal and geographical principle, is as open as El Sicario is closed. The broader canvas, plus the sheer fact of Rosi making a film that goes out into the world instead of holing up in a Motel 6, might seem to be a boon in terms of both broader appeal and greater formal possibility. On the former score, this was not necessarily the case. Whatever newfound clout Rosi may have garnered in North American circles afforded Sacro GRA no greater entreé into certain festivals. The massively bloated New York Film Festival, for example, this year featured a separate sidebar slate of documentaries (in addition to the five docs in its main selection), and still had no room for Sacro GRA. This in itself is not particularly significant, but could point to certain assumptions about the film’s implied audience and mode of address.

But taken on its own merits, Sacro GRA suffers from a structural slackness, as though Rosi’s expansive manoeuvre was a bridge too far for the filmmaker. (Granted, Rosi’s first film, Boatman [1993], used a trip down the Ganges River as a similar formal conceit. But that film was shorter, and his films thereafter have tended to focus on small, contained subjects.) We understand that everyone we meet lives or works on or around the GRA. But why these individuals? And why not hundreds of others? What exactly is at stake in Sacro GRA?

After beginning with a meandering, sub-Brakhage montage of unfocused brake lights and electric signs smearing and slicing the dark night, Rosi throws us right into the back of ambulance #617, where paramedics are working to save a man who appears to have been fished out of the river. We will return to the ambulance several times throughout Sacro GRA, but in the first ten minutes we are shuttled around the ring to meet a roadside meadow of sheep; an eccentric research exterminator who uses high-tech microphony to listen for destructive weevil larvae inside palm trees; Gaetano, a somewhat fallen nobleman who rents the family’s castle keep out to TV productions; random denizens of rundown ’70s-era public housing playing ball around an eerily expansive portico that resembles the agoraphobia-inducing open spaces of classic Antonioni; and two hard-bitten women (“Barbara” and “Pina”) who live in a camper van off the edge of the GRA. In a bit of dark comedy, Barbara is angry that her arrest report claimed she was “totally naked” when she was taken in. Whatever she was caught doing, she was doing it while wearing the same tube-top she’s wearing now. Slander!

It takes more than 30 minutes before individual subjects and locations start recurring, so the sense of randomness in Sacro GRA becomes a bit numbing. There’s the promise of structural integrity, but not that much in evidence. Some shots and sequences keep the ring road in the background, either high or low against the frame line like a formalist refrain. Most do not. Rosi uses long shots of cars and trucks on the GRA as connective tissue between some sequences in the film, while other passages are linked by simple straight cuts. When the key figures in the film—the paramedic, the insect researcher, and the Ambersonian nobleman—begin asserting themselves through repetition, it’s unclear exactly how their specific symbolic functions (and they are fairly obvious) add up to a coherent thematic assertion.

The closest thing Rosi offers to a formal device is a repeated, canted framing of windows in a public high-rise off the GRA, shot from the outside in. In identical modular arrangements, we are allowed to eavesdrop on two different households. In one, an elderly father and his daughter discuss aspects of Rome’s past, and the old man expresses his concern for the girl’s future. In the other, a middle-aged Latina woman and her kids (one of whom is practicing his DJing) all negotiate the small apartment space. Both families comment on a house in the distance, which is boarded up but apparently occupied, either the domain of a squatter or someone extremely paranoid about the social evolution of mixed races and classes now dispersed around the GRA.

But we can perhaps take it as a sign of Rosi’s relative indifference to formal strictures that this, his most obvious structural manoeuvre, lacks the dialectical muscle that its side-by-side comparison implies. The two households, apart from their architectural propinquity, offer little by their critical juxtaposition. This bespeaks the overall lack of follow-through that characterizes Sacro GRA, if examined from this generalized experimental-documentary criteria. We could put it in even simpler terms: in the small subset of films that take their geographical orientation from a piece of highway, Sacro GRA lacks the organizational thrust and the intellectual curiosity of Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital (2002). But apart from that, if we understand Rosi’s endeavour to be more about providing a cross-section of contemporary European life-practices, Sacro GRA doesn’t stand up particularly well to genre scrutiny. Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s films exhibit far more rigour; Michael Glawogger’s, more melodrama; Harun Farocki’s, more dialectical materialism; Thomas Heise’s, more black humour; and Nicolas Philibert’s, more humanist warmth.

But it’s possible that this is the wrong frame for understanding Sacro GRA, and that, in its own way, it is every bit as circumscribed as El Sicario or Rosi’s 2008 film Below Sea Level, which zeroed in on a group of friends eking out an existence off the grid in dilapidated camper vans (a rhyme of sorts with GRA). Part of the value of the film (and why it might have appealed to the Venice jury, in a field dominated by attempted “grand statements”) might have to do with this very smallness. The sorts of wide-ranging documentaries to which we have grown accustomed may condition us to read Sacro GRA incorrectly. If we think of the film as an internal memo of sorts, a “state of Italy address” from inside the very small Saturnine ring of present-day Rome, this will not necessarily make Rosi’s film “better,” but it might make it more comprehensible.

The people we meet are indeed all over the occupational map, and the apparent meaning of their individual inclusion may result in somewhat conflicting political valences. The eel fisherman, for example, balks at global trade in the form of the importation and crossbreeding of international eel species, but his frustration comes across as a kind of grizzled traditionalism. The inclusion of sex workers along the GRA provides a hint of progressivism, but the image of a drunken lout negotiating with a transgender woman for sex (“You are so hot and you’ve got a dick…”), while clearly intended to be at the expense of the john, exposes the woman to all-too-familiar ridicule within the film.

But these specific differences within the politics of Sacro GRA’s representation could be understood as minor speed bumps, so to speak, within the overall fabric of Rosi’s portrait of a new image of the body politic. During the decades of Berlusconi’s high dudgeon, a particular mode of representing the polis held sway. Erik Gandini called it Videocracy (2009), the dominance of T&A and jabronism, the use of cardboard reality-TV tropes as a template for social discourse. (The tragic hangover of this era was recently depicted, with mixed creative results, in Matteo Garrone’s Reality [2012].) Rosi, by contrast, appears to be making some tentative steps towards a reparative form of documentary, trying to use the GRA as a place, some place, to begin drawing something like an accurate picture of the contemporary Italian public.

By cinematic standards, Sacro GRA lacks the acuity and exactitude of films like Leben: BRD (1990) or Abendland (2011). But this is because, unlike Farocki or Geyrhalter, Rosi is working to attain an image of Italian social totality, or discover whether such a thing exists. (Geyrhalter is articulating Austrian diversity and rupture, whereas Farocki was examining West Germany’s stifling conformism.) It is hardly coincidental that Sacro GRA, this most aggressively post-Berlusconian effort—both in terms of political and media attitudes—arrives in the days of the so-called “Grand coalition,” which finds Enrico Letta at the centre of a “ring” comprised of contentious groups seemingly as disparate as those subjects included in Sacro GRA. Their position, and the need to form a whole, is their only absolute point of commonality.

Again, this doesn’t mean that Rosi’s film comes together to make an argument, or even to tell us that much about present-day Rome, aside from a kind of Joycean-Catholic ambiance: “Here comes everybody.” This, of course, is preferable to the hollow mythmaking and necrophilia that comprises Paolo Sorrentino’s Rome in The Great Beauty (2013), a film that appears to be parlaying desiccated cinephilia into minor success. And although the circumstances of Sacro GRA ought not to be cause for overlooking its shortcomings, they can perhaps explain the insularity of the film, and the general sense of emergency that prevails as its only clear aesthetic dominant. It is slapdash because it is trying to figure out how to get back to a state of public memory and shared civic discourse, without reaching back to nostalgic tropes of small-town homogeneity.

The ambulance driver hurtles us through space time and again in this film, literally driving us around the GRA as fast as he can, but the last time we see him, he is in a nursing home attending to his elderly mother. She is clearly suffering from dementia, and the two of them struggle to communicate and remember. Meanwhile, the mad tree doctor drills more holes, dislodges more weevils, and plots his counterattack. “The palm can’t defend itself,” he warns. “Hundreds and hundreds of mouths, gnawing, sucking, destroying. It’s the sound of an orgy, a repulsive feast.” One gets the clear impression that, whatever else may be happening in Sacro GRA, Gianfranco Rosi clearly identifies with these two men, the paramedic and the palm-weevil driller, both working in a corner of Rome in the hopes of saving civilization from itself.

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