There is a side to Italian culture which, given the importance it has, receives far too little attention. Beyond the cop vs. mafia gun battles and the eccentric lives of Italian dilettantes, there lurks a mysterious, timeless figure: the contadino
. Typically the contadino is a highly rustic, humble figure - a real sort of salt of the earth type - who carries with him a kind of earthly wisdom that earns him a very specific form of respect. He is the man who you follow into the under grove in search of delicious wild delights; he is the man you trust when he says he has a healthy supply of the best moonshine around.
These are the kinds of revered figures that Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis have thankfully committed to film with Il Solengo, just as they sit on the cusp of potentially passing out of existence. Only the "solengo" in this particular film refers to a very particular kind of beast. Drawn from the laziale dialect that surrounds Rome and stemming from the word "solo" or "alone," this is the name given to solitary wild male boars. Except among a Pratolungo community about an hour outside of the capital, this is a word that is used to refer an almost legendary hermit that lives there - a man we might describe as a contadino in extremis.
This man isn't a myth, either. He's a real man who goes by the name Mario de Marcella, and this documentary is a very faithful account of his complex legacy. What follows is a series of unobtrusive discussions with many of the region's feisty male elders, and it feels almost a
like an entire community of wizened silver-backs has descended from the hills to discuss the behaviour of one of their errant sons. Though Mario isn't necessarily wayward, he's just different - somewhere between a recluse and a violent misanthrope. So understandably his unpredictable and atypical decision to live out in the scrub-lands of central Italy prompts some pretty mixed feelings in those around him.
And in some ways the same could be said for this documentary. Nestled among the Bright Futures programme at the 45th International Film Festival Rotterdam, this film behaves in a way you might also not expect, and it manages to evoke feelings in you that may well seem surprising. Incredibly, this film is very much a talking heads movie, but rather like Joshua Oppenheimer's exceptional recent release The Look of Silence it actually manages to be so much more than that. Both films really do make up part of a wave of projects that are redefining the way you can think about documentary and the otherworldly sensations they are able to give you.
Certainly this film is a slow burner, and it's no faster out of the starting blocks than its octogenarian cast would be in an egg and spoon race; so this may well be a film where it's worth downing a few espressos beforehand to get you feeling sufficiently Italian. But what Il Solengo lacks in physicality it more than makes up in atmosphere, and it is here that this film really excels. Every frame tends to be filled with the oh-so-distinctive paraphernalia of rustic Italian life, and the characters that the directors capture never seem to be far from a wholesome hearth that casts warmth into their seasoned anecdotes.
The camera also frequently stalks the men it interviews through the riotous landscapes they live in, as if it were accompanying them on the boar hunts that seem so central to their lives. Then at other moments it seems to track alongside them stopping short suddenly as they move out of frame, or it sits at an awkward distance from them as they sit there talking. All in all, these idiosyncrasies in the camera's behaviour seem to be very much about reinforcing the film's pervasive sense of the unease that surrounds Mario's socially transgressive behaviour. The feature's music also lurks in the background too, often being made up of solitary trumpets or an eerie rhythmic clipping that seem to sound rather like a boar's hooves menacingly cantering around us.
This documentary's cinematography is also fantastic, a field within the genre which seems to be making phenomenal strides recently, leaving less aesthetically considered docs feeling lifeless in comparison. Instead, Simone D'Arcangelo's work as a D.O.P. lends a grandeur to these men's lives and their basic hunting lodges, which really sees them transform into something a bit more spiritual. Often this is thanks to the soft, yellow Italian light that D'Arcangelo often allows to stream into the film's shots, and this process of almost mystification is very much part of what this film is all about as it inserts its protagonists into an incredibly timeless impression of Italian history.
The affection that goes into this aura of history is also clearly unmistakeable, even if we never actually hear any of the filmmakers speak. The focus instead is much more on giving space to the men's voices, and sadly much of their linguistic brio is lost in translation in the confines of the subtitles. But their spirit certainly does still shine through nevertheless and no matter what culture you come from, it is incredibly difficult to resist the sort of easy-going state of autonomy these men seem to pull off (rather like intensely chilled out, wisecracking cowboys). In fact, you might even find yourself enjoying the odd belly laugh now and then (if you enjoy watching documentaries, that is). Although even if you don't, it really is worth offering yourself up freely to the culture and nostalgia that this film spotlights.
It's just a real pity that this spotlight falls so exclusively on the male perspective, and this creates perhaps the films most glaring flaw, because it would have been very interesting to have heard a few female perspectives too. Nevertheless, the directors did say that this was something they had consciously decided to do, as it fitted with their aesthetic of absence and leaves room for our imaginations to conjure a more ethereal female presence than they could have created. That is perhaps a nimble side-stepping of a very serious issue, but whatever your thoughts absence and isolation is definitely a very important part of this film.
After all, Il Solengo's beautifully romantic sense of impending cultural loss is typically brought home by the fact that we almost never see the hermit himself. Despite his incredibly central role, we only ever generally know him through the first-hand accounts that the village folk are able to offer, rather like some kind of mythical beast about to pass out of existence. Indeed, it is only right at the close of the film that we hear his magically musical voice, and only then do we have any clear indication that he actually is still alive.
What he has to say in these dying moments proves to be remarkably moving too, as it confirms that his suffering and solitude on the fringes of humanity is also born out of certain absences and bereavements of his own. So this is a film which at its heart is a very humanistic documentary that should be able to speak widely to everyone. For viewers who have any connection at all to Italy, though, this film has the potential to be a revelation, and it is very surprising to see such mature non-fiction work being produced by such young directors.
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