‘Spettacolo’: Film Review | SXSW 2017

‘Spettacolo’ filmmakers Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen moved to Tuscany and learned Italian in order to chronicle an unusual theatrical tradition whose survival is uncertain.

Like Marwencol, Jeff Malmberg’s superb documentary feature about an extraordinary outsider artist, his new film, co-directed by Chris Shellen, concerns a form of DIY theater. But there are none of the earlier film’s harrowing twists and narrative resets; the elegiac Spettacolo is in some ways a familiar story, revolving around the universal tug of war between time and tradition. Specifically, it explores the half-century custom of “autodrama,” or self-produced plays, in the tiny Tuscan village of Monticchiello, amid a rapidly changing economy. 

The filmmakers capture the medieval hill town’s Teatro Povero at a moment when its survival is uncertain and the village’s identity is in flux. But they also show the role the open-air theater plays in forging a deeper sense of community and sorting out big questions; year after year the performers stage original works about their lives in the village. Caught in the gentrifying forces of tourism and summer-home-ization, the villagers watch as crumbling farmhouses are snatched up for vacation villas, private gates go up and their children are priced out of their birthplace. 

The Bottom Line

Lovely and elegiac.

Malmberg and Shellen (a producer of Marwencol) cover a year in the life of the theater project, an annual rite that began as a way to commemorate the villagers’ partisan standoff against Nazis during World War II. (The film’s title is Italian for “spectacle” or “performance.”) They start with the winter planning meetings: In the thick of Italy’s — and the world’s — economic crisis, participants debate the perennial question of whether to be topical or simply entertaining. 

The issue-minded win, as indicated by a spring table read of a work called End of the World. During a dress rehearsal, among a few costumed players waiting in the wings, DP Malmberg catches one performer’s impassioned comments about economic inequality. The group’s wide-ranging indignation gives way, momentarily, to a shrugging acceptance of life’s absurdity when the bank that has been the theater’s chief sponsor, Monte dei Paschi, is shuttered because of a derivatives scandal, the very type of corruption and greed the performers bemoan. 

With its ancient stone buildings and a population of 136 at the time of filming (plus a few contented cats), Monticchiello has a picture-postcard serenity. Malmberg’s lens is alert to the natural beauty but also to such endangered gatherings as the old men kibitzing on a bench outside an osteria. As clear as the filmmakers’ fondness for the villagers is, there’s also a respectful distance to Spettacolo, along with its own occasional touches of theatricality, as when various troupe members rehearse lines from the play while at home or work. 

The film’s most intimate moments belong to the troupe’s founding director, Andrea Cresti, an elegant, intensely focused visual artist with a wild shock of gray hair. He deals with the usual frustrations over production details, but also a larger awareness of something waning. The troupe’s numbers are dwindling as longtime members retire or pass away, and there’s a decided lack of interest among the town’s youngsters. 

But the tourists roll in with the summer weather, climbing the road into town for dinner and a show: the local specialty of pici pasta and the performance on the piazza’s temporary stage. Whether or not they’re expecting a dramatic spin on what one Teatro Povero member calls “the barbarism of modernity,” that’s what the audience will see under the Tuscan sky. 

With its notes of tender delicacy, Lele Marcitelli’s judiciously used score accentuates the film’s bittersweetness. Time marches on, and a generation-spanning, lifelong endeavor might not endure. Cresti’s son may help him with the theater, but most of his energy goes to running a B&B. Sitting in a café, the artist watches other customers, busy on their digital devices. He savors a gelato, unhurried and without distraction.

Production company: Open Face
Directors: Jeff Malmberg, Chris Shellen
Producers: Jeff Malmberg, Chris Shellen, Matt Radecki
Director of photography-editor: Jeff Malmberg
Composer: Lele Marcitelli
Venue: South by Southwest (Documentary Spotlight)
Sales: The Film Sales Company

90 minutes