Essay: Italia, Italia, A Documentary Peninsula

Essay: Italia, Italia, A Documentary Peninsula

By Thierry Garrel

The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of great moral crisis - DANTE ALIGHIERI (APOCRYPHAL)

It has been said that Italy is, to a certain extent, the social and political laboratory of European democracy. Recently, Italian documentaries have captured major awards competing against fiction films in leading film festivals such as Berlinale, Venice, and Cannes, while triumphing in most of the prominent European documentary festivals. Strong auteurs have emerged such as Gianfranco Rosi, Stefano Savona, and Roberto Minervini, to name a few of the most celebrated, and these individuals have taken a stand and championed ideas through their films that deal with the urgent questions of our times. In this regard, it is significant that Nanni Moretti, one of the leading Italian cineastes, chose for his latest work to shift to a documentary format to recount how the Italian Embassy in Santiago, Chile, provided refuge to hundreds of dissenters in the aftermath of the brutal 1973 coup against democratic President Allende.*

For Italia Italia, we have chosen** to confront several contemporary Italian and French films along with some of their directors, providing an opportunity to showcase the new generation of documentarians blooming in Italy who are rediscovering the power of cinematic language to explore humanist values. This movement might well be the forerunner of a real “renaissance” of Italian cinema.

In Sara Fgaier’s The Years (Gli anni), awarded Best European Short Film last year, films from a Sardinian family’s archive are recomposed with a literary text to become expressive elements constituting both a confession and a collective narrative.

For her first feature-length documentary, My Home, in Libya, visual artist Martina Melilli partners with a young Libyan during the final days of the Gaddafi regime to retrace the steps of her grandfather, who left Tripoli 50 years ago and remains nostalgic about his life in the former colony.

In the remote countryside of Vermont, Giovanni Donfrancesco records the uncompromising confessions of The Resolute (Il Risoluto), an old man who was enlisted at age 15 into one of the fiercest fascist bands in Genoa under the leadership of the “Black Prince,” Junio Borghese.

While Stefano De Luigi, Italian photojournalist, embarks on the migrant rescue boat Aquarius for Mare Amarum, Marco Piccarreda and Gaia Formenti — who were awarded Best Innovative Medium-Length Film at Visions du Réel for CittàGiardino — build a powerful, almost silent dramaturgy around six teenage refugees from Africa indefinitely detained in a Sicilian reception centre for unaccompanied minors.

Claudia Tosi’s I Had a Dream (Avevo un sogno), a multiaward winner at the last DOK Leipzig festival, follows 10 years of political commitment by two female friends, one a member of parliament and the other a city councillor, as they fight for women’s rights and confront the disillusionment of uphill political struggle.

Coming from the other side of the Alps, renowned French director Mosco Levi Boucault spent most of the last 15 years of his unique career researching, shooting, editing, and producing films about Italian social, political, and judicial realities. Boucault excels at gaining privileged access to first-hand subjects and invaluable archives, and in Berlusconi: The Mondadori Affair (Berlusconi, Affaire Mondadori) he documents the bribery of a judge as the Prime Minister to be seeks to take possession of the largest publishing house in Italy. Likewise, in They Were the Red Brigades (Ils étaient les Brigades Rouges), Boucault extracts testimonials from four members of the unit that kidnapped, sequestrated, and murdered Christian Democrat leader Aldo Moro 40 years ago. Boucault has just completed the monumental Corleone, which pre-screened at the Rome Film Festival last October. The film charts the ruthless rise and fall of infamous Sicilian godfather Totò Riina, who drenched Italy in blood, defied the State for 20 years and ordered the execution of anti-mafia judges Falcone and Borsellino.

Two decades ago, Corradino Durruti began to film the long-lasting police investigation that would lead, after seven years, to the arrest and criminal conviction of a Calabrian mafia boss in Ndrangheta: A Mafia of Business and Blood (‘Ndrangheta, une mafia d’affaires et de sang). Elsewhere, in The Call (La Convocazione), Enrico Maisto shoots powerful close-ups in the Assize Court of Appeal in Milan that capture the discussions and worries of ordinary citizens, some of whom will be chosen as members of the jury.

Filmed over an entire year in a suburban Roman school, Alessandro Marinelli captures the difficult implementation of social skills and hope among socially challenged students in Basileus: The School of Kings (Basileus, la scuola dei re). Complementary to this, French filmmaker Claire Simon’s*** latest opus Young Solitude (Premières solitudes) stages intimate dialogues between emotional teenagers on the edge of adulthood.

What characterizes all of these films is a clear choice by their directors to share these particular experiences of past and present realities through their own voices and styles, their “écriture.” The intent is to concentrate not only on what is told, be it education, crime, politics, or social change, but equally on how it is told, in order to enlarge for each single viewer the proper metaphorical resonance. Moving, tragic, thrilling, and genuinely crafted, all of these auteur-directed films remind us that cinema isn’t a mere machine for presenting images, it is a machine for sharing and thinking.

* The film will soon be theatrically released in Canada.
** I want to thank my friends Stefano Savona, Ludovica Tortora De Falco, Luciano Barrisone, Maria Bonsanti and Hugues Le Paige for their assistance with the selection process.
*** A retrospective of her work screened at DOXA 2016 and is now touring throughout North America.