directed by Jeff Malmberg & Chris Shellen
April 6, 1944 will always carry a deep meaning to the older inhabitants of the Tuscan village of Monticchiello — it was on that day in the hills near the town of three hundred inhabitants that a group of seventy anti-fascist partisans fought for hours against an organized force of several hundred fascists who were about to set upon the town. The morning after that battle, German soldiers entered Monticchiello with tanks and artillery with the mission of executing every man, woman, and child there. After pleas went unheard from many, including the town priest, one woman from the village, a Mrs. Angeheben, was able to convince the German commander to not kill everyone as she was also from the commander’s hometown of Leipzig. We will soon learn, through a few minutes of narration and flashes of archived photos in Chris Shellen and Jeff Malmberg’s new documentary, Spettacolo, that this dire moment, years later, moved the people of Monticchiello to change their annual town play from one of adapted classic theater into one that uses their own stories and personal concerns to form an “autodrama.” As soon as Malmberg and Shellen whirred by this significant point of history and its future impact, my first concern emerged: “What became of Mrs. Angeheben?” And, this marked the beginning of a stream of similar desires for clarification and expansion on the documentary’s subjects, all of whom are handled by the directors in a cursory and inept manner in Spettacolo.
Like so many others, we first became aware of Jeff Malmberg’s work after seeing his deservedly award-winning 2010 documentary, Marwencol, which delves deeply into the immense power that the creation of art possesses as a tool in helping people unveil their true feelings towards real moments. Unfortunately, unlike Marwencol, which had the singular vision and dedication to the process and depiction of the artwork of Mark Hogancamp, as seen via the many model stagings he provides directly to camera, to allow the his work to convey implicitly his own personal journey, Spettacolo suffers from a lack a focus and awkward editing that consequently remove any moments of genuine emotion from the multitudes of short conversations that we see throughout this all too short (considering the scope of what is being covered), ninety minute documentary that reduces its subjects and history to a singular uninspired statement on globalization.
Malmberg and Shellen focus some of their narrative on Andrea Cresti, a founder and former actor in the play who has now become its central creative director for a predominance of its fifty year tradition. Early on, the directors present a shot of Alpo, another founding member of the troupe, who is sadly in the latter stages of Alzheimer’s. He is mostly seen in old footage, and we are to assume that he is unable or unwilling to be interviewed. Then, Alpo’s longtime wife and stage partner, Elda, who is battling cancer and is not participating in this year’s play, is barely heard from as well (for possibly the same reasons as her husband, but we are never given any nuance for any explanation). Shortly thereafter, the directors cast a quick glimpse onto Arturo, another founding member and one who is quick to point out the importance of Andrea and goes as far as to state that “nobody capable of replacing him has been born yet,” which may or may not be a slight against the young woman Gianna Fiore, who patiently and tenaciously works with Andrea in what appears to be an assistant director role. But alas, we have no idea, for she is never directly interviewed, and thus we do not know how she feels about her current role and if she has any future aspirations for the play. Andrea, the person who is the closest to the main protagonist in the broken and shallow narrative of Spettacolo, rarely discusses the well-being of his company, so we are left all too often to guess the opinions and motivations of the people of Monticchiello without much evidence to help us even create those guesses.
Quickly, after meeting and leaving the first set of players, we see the troupe members discussing their ideas for what this year’s play should be about, and after some un-momentous bickering, the theme of the faltering economy and its effect on the town of Monticchiello is selected. The issue with Spettacolo now becomes the fact that this is a play about modernity, but you rarely see how modernity intertwines into this world that almost seems too stuck in the past. The only glimpses into the outside world are seen through the usual method of a headline posted on the town’s newspaper box; no answers or comments on the current events in the town or outside of it are given. It is hastily mentioned that the town used to subsist from sharecropping, but that industry is gone, so are people now surviving off of some cottage industry, or are they heading into other nearby towns to work? We see Andrea’s son running his home as a bed and breakfast, and that is pretty much the only detailed glimpse into how anyone the town is surviving. We do see slick video shots of cargo-short-wearing, luggage wheeling, selfie-focused, out-of-place tourists interrupting the quaint and historic architecture of the village, but we know little about how anyone feels about these visitors or why the visitors have even chosen to visit the town. We later learn about a failed attempt by unidentified members of Monticchiello to build homes at the bottom of the mountain to encourage tourism and new tax money, but we see those homes unfinished due to some infighting, and of course, no one explains why. What are given as an answer to all of our accumulated questions of “Why?” is an endless array of travel magazine shots of the town and its rural bliss, which is perhaps Malmberg and Shellen’s way of stating that the town’s only use is that of a potential vacation village, but these shots did little more than to pound home what I feel is the intended goal of Spettacolo, which is to reduce Monticchiello’s noble fifty year theatrical tradition into another heavy handed, poorly-substantiated statement about the grim reality of globalization’s effect on history and cultural heritage.
Besides the actors, the depiction of the play in the documentary itself becomes another casualty of the directors’ intended message as the film offers just a few minutes of footage of what was a year of hard work by the villagers. Did the performance have any emotional meaning to the actors or audience? I guess that none of this matters as the goal of Spettacolo is to present the reality of economic collapse in a more dire and less poetic way than the actors and Andrea could ever do, but is this necessary to make the lives of the people involved and their art the sacrificial lamb for this exercise? If Marwencol’s goal was to show the catharsis that can occur through art, is Spettacolo saying that art can only be truly pervasive when the observations of its reality are being made and preserved by outsiders? The closing of the film with Andrea’s final thoughts of Monticchiello’s eminent demise as a tourist trap, with the alternative being only his fantastical, idealistic wish that the town could become its own constant performance as a means of self-discovery, provides us an answer to this question. Here, at the end of Spettacolo, Malmberg and Shellen patronize their lead, presenting him as a pitiful, woefully out-of-touch pessimist and idealist who is simply bound to be forgotten in the face of the town’s extinction. They close Spettacolo without any urgency, any passion; we only see defeat from Andrea and a smug resignation from the directors that seems to sound like: “Well, what are you going to do about the problem of globalization? It’s a real shame. At least the town is beautiful for now, and at least we documented some of the town before its major changes.”
In the end, Spettacolo‘s statement of the impact of globalization is lessened by the flippant treatment given to the village’s autodrama’s history and the poorly explained economic issues of the people of Monticchiello. We, as the viewers, come away from Spettacolo without any sense of loss for this dying tradition of autodrama because we have never completely understood its past, nor are we given a full view of the drama that the townspeople hope to express to us about its limited future.