Anna - Curated by Dennis Lim

Film Still: A young woman sitting in the middle of a group of 4 men. The film title, Anna, is in the right corner.


Shot in 1972, first shown in 1975, and virtually unseen outside Italy until its restoration by the Cineteca Nazionale and the Cineteca di Bologna in 2011, Anna is a nearly four-hour documentary that takes its name from its central character: an 8-months-pregnant 16-year-old, homeless and on drugs, whom the filmmakers discovered in Rome’s Piazza Navona. The film is an extraordinarily precise record of a particular time and place: the mythical tinder box of militancy, rage, repression, paranoia, and nihilism that was Italy in the 1970s. It’s also a movie that overflows its bounds at every turn. As Robert Kramer said of Milestones (1975), another post-counterculture epic of equivalent scale and intimacy: “Everything has to be in it.” Viewed in a certain light, Anna seems to hold all the possibilities of cinema—even as it acknowledges its limits.

Simply put, Anna concerns the difficult circumstances faced by its central figure, and the no less turbulent conditions of its own production. Much of it revolves around interactions between this radiant, afflicted, and often dazed teenager and the filmmakers themselves, both of whom appear on-screen. Grifi and Sarchielli offer to put Anna up at Sarchielli’s apartment, in part to get her off the streets and in part to make a film about her. The domestic arrangement makes for some discomfiting moments: in one of the longest, queasiest sequences, Sarchielli, who is not above copping an occasional feel, subjects their lice-infested charge to a strip search-cum-delousing in the shower. When the camera is not trained on Anna, it plants itself in the thick of lengthy, often heated discussions about the girl, along with the filmmakers’ questionable intercession and the burning societal questions of the day. The unruly, opinionated crosstalk at cafes and in town squares—among hippies, vagabonds, angry young men, and a few bourgeois specimens—gives form to the film’s key themes of obligation and intervention. We are left to ponder the dynamics between a state and its citizens, among fellow members of society, and, quite pointedly, between a filmmaker and their subject.

Anna would remain the lone directorial credit for Sarchielli, a character actor who had roles in Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits, several spaghetti westerns, and even some Hollywood productions (including Under the Tuscan Sun). Grifi was active in Rome’s avant-garde scene of the 1960s alongside the likes of Carmelo Bene and Gianfranco Baruchello. (Grifi and Baruchello’s 1964 La verifica incerta is a Duchamp-inspired assemblage of genre-movie detritus, a formative classic of the found-footage genre and far ahead of its time.) An early adopter of video, Grifi produced a number of cult documentaries such as Parco Lambro Juvenile Proletariat Festival (1976), a document of a Woodstock-like music festival that spirals into a full-fledged protest, and Lia (1977), a single-shot record of a woman delivering an impassioned speech against the psychiatric establishment. 

For Anna, Grifi and Sarchielli began with 16 mm film, but switched to video early in the process. Much of the film was shot on a portable open-reel video recorder, then transferred to film by Grifi using a kinescoping system he devised called the vidigrafo. Like many who embraced the new medium, Grifi immediately recognized video’s political potential. In Jean-Luc Godard’s hands, video was a tool of analysis, its editing techniques facilitating a complex method of combining and separating images, sounds, and text; in Grifi’s, it became an instrument for apprehending the flux of moment-to-moment experience. There is the sense here (palpable as well in some signature narrative films of the period, most notably John Cassavetes’s) of being plunged into unfolding lives. The high cost of shooting on celluloid was for Grifi a distortion. As he put it, film “transformed the language of life into the language of money.” Video, on the other hand, “made life filmable,” and opened up “spaces of freedom.” In this regard, it is at least as significant an innovation for the observational documentary as the hand-held sync-sound equipment that catalyzed the previous decade’s cinéma vérité movement.  

Many debates that have surrounded documentary from the start are encapsulated in Anna. More than that, they are embodied by the film, which poses and stages questions about the effect of the observing camera, the role and responsibility of the filmmaker, the agency of the subject, and the balance of power between the filmer and the filmed. Self-reflexive and self-implicating, Grifi and Sarchielli’s film includes reenactments, explicit attempts to direct the subject, and frequent intrusions from behind the camera. These come not just from the filmmakers, but—most unexpectedly—from the film’s electrician as well, who at one point enters the frame to declare his love for Anna. 

Anna’s sounds and visuals bear the glitchy imperfections of early video, and the film often seems like a transmission from another era. The restoration is true to the fragile material’s lo-fi, volatile rawness, and the ghostly translucence of the images (transferred from analog video to film, and now digitally preserved) are fitting for what even back then was a film of phantoms. 

The movie’s power has much to do with the complexity of its subject. Anna is undeniably an exploited figure, an object of study, a guinea pig, but also, in a very real sense, the film’s star, a magnetic screen presence, who by turns absorbs and deflects the filmmakers’ persistent, even sadistic gazes. One might even imagine that the camera awakens something in Anna, enabling her to redirect the course of her story even if simply in the form of a denial. It is Anna who determines how the film will end, exiting when she decides to. (No one knows for sure what became of Anna, but her afterlives continue: Rachel Kushner’s 2013 novel The Flamethrowers is dedicated to her and writes her into the narrative, a moving gesture of resurrection. The Austrian artist Constanze Ruhm’s 2020 essay film, The Notes of Anna Azzori, is a feminist update and response to Grifi and Sarchielli’s project.) 

Grifi in particular would continue the ambivalent auto-critique that is to some extent built into Anna. In a filmed interview a couple of years after the initial release, he said: “Massimo maintains that we exposed the decay of institutional systems, but ultimately we should have done something more.” His damning conclusion: “We chose a film about reality over the struggle to change reality.” 

Like so many emblematic films of the 1970s—“the ultimate post-decade,” in Serge Daney’s words—Anna is about the end of the 1960s. Aside from capturing a period of seismic political change, it marks a techno-existential inflection point: the emergence of video as a medium of documentation. In other words, the birth of our media age. Anna demonstrates the obsessive, immersive possibilities of new technologies, even as it expresses an uneasy, dawning awareness of what it means for life to be fully filmable. It’s a movie born on a cusp, as an urgency to change the world yielded to an urge to record it.


Dennis Lim
Guest Curator



Anna screens on Saturday, May 4th at 6:30 PM, at The Cinematheque. For tickets, click here.

Dennis Lim is a New York-based film curator and writer. Currently the Artistic Director of the New York Film Festival, he is the author of Tale of Cinema (2022), a monograph on the filmmaker Hong Sangsoo, and The Man from Another Place (2015), a critical biography of David Lynch that has been translated into three languages. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Artforum, Cinema Scope, and Film Comment, and he has taught at Harvard and New York University.

A photo of Dennis Lim, an Asian man wearing glasses and a red sweater, smiling with his mouth closed. Behind him is a robin's egg blue backdrop.