It goes without saying that a chief purpose of art, if nothing else, consists of the catharsis of its creator(s).
The aesthetic realm is where artists sort out their innermost conflicts and dreams, melding them into a form of expression that honours the emotion behind the impetus; the final product is its manifestation. Never have I seen this theme explored so literally than through the subjects of Jeff Malmberg and Christina Shellen’s new documentary, Spettacolo, which had its Canadian premiere last week at the Hot Docs film festival. The film will be released in the US by Grasshopper Film and in Canada through Blue Ice Docs this fall.
Spettacolo tells the story of a quaint Italian village perched up in the hills of Tuscany and its rare community of theater-enthusiasts. Having a town driven by thespians is nothing unique in and of itself. Then you realize that, not only are their annual summer productions, which include a sizable majority of the town’s citizens, entirely original and an intensely collaborative means to express their collective plight as they communally evolve through life, but they are, in fact, specifically about the plight that’s been motivating them to create since the second world war. In short, all the players involved are playing themselves and their actual roles within their intimate society.
Just as art helps us work out our conflicts, the town of Monticchiello (population: 136) has been under its own microscope for decades for the heady entertainment of visitors and tourists, who go out of their way to witness the spectacle firsthand with voyeuristic fascination. No subject is too taboo for their theater group, though some plays over the years have come close. Ultimately, the more off-putting or too-close-to-home a subject may feel in the knee jerk responses of the players during their initial yearly brainstorming sessions, the more urgent that topic becomes as one demanding of their shared exploration.
Jeff Malmberg made waves in 2010 with Marwencol, a documentary I would cite as among the most richly intriguing I’ve ever seen. In Spettacolo, Malmberg along with co-director Christina Shellen, without speaking the language of their subjects, succeed in capturing Monticchiello’s most cherished and defining tradition with grace and a subtle curiosity into its remarkable history. Spettacolo ends up reaching far deeper into the nature of creation and the fans that flame it than most films about art and performance are capable of.
How did you find out about the town of Monticchiello and its main preoccupation?
Jeff Malmberg: Heh, ‘main preoccupation’, yeah. My wife and I were just traveling through Italy being a version of the very tourists that you see in the film. Doing very touristy things and we were early for a dinner reservation, so we started wandering around and there was an open door that turned out to be Andrea's studio [the director]. So I saw this amazing looking man scribbling on a piece of paper and it was that moment when you're - as a filmmaker - you're like, "Oh, I didn't bring my camera. I wish I just had five minutes, I could do a portrait, I don't know what this guy is?"
I just remember being like, "I gotta remember this guy.", and the town seemed a little different than other hill towns in Italy in the sense that there was not the kind of commercial wine and cheese Disneyfication of Tuscan aspect to it. It seemed like a real town where people live, so we started doing some research. I think Chris saw a flyer and we realized that this town has been playing themselves on stage every year for 50 years as sort of their, as you say, main preoccupation. Their, like, psychic ... festival.
What did you say to your wife? What was your gut response to that concept?
"This is insane, we don't know Italian, we'll never be able to pull this off." I remember being in the rain in Pienza, having our first of many heated discussions that were to follow, and there were millions of wonderful discussions, but this was the first challenge of ‘are we gonna try this or not?’.
Was the timing such that you were able to see that year's play?
No. We kind of put it on hold, because our brains were full with Marwencol.
Which you were in post-production on?
Yeah, we were sort of a year away from finishing and putting it out. So then about two years later when we were, "What's our next adventure?", we couldn't help but think of this little town and so we went back there, saw the play, talked to them, started filming and seeing what the vibe was and then the next year after that we made a presentation to them of this is what we want to do and will you allow us to do it?
Right, now you didn't speak Italian, so that first play you saw, were you just watching people?
There was, kindly, an English translation - a one-page English translation scene by scene, so you could kind of follow it, and we had started by that point, studying a little bit, because we knew we wanted to go back. But, yeah, it was a lot of inference.
What do you feel like Andrea's first impression of you guys was? Was it an easy sale?
For him, surprisingly, I don't know about easy, but the amount of trust and kindness was supreme. I think he saw something in us, he sort of, as you can kind of see with that one scene with the pigeon, he's sort of the protector of small things.
He's that guy and so I think he saw us as two more small things to protect... And he's got an artistic sense about him, obviously, very much of an artistic sense, so I think that played into it too - why wouldn't your biographer be two Americans who speak pidgin Italian? Wouldn't that be a grand artistic gesture? I don't know, I look forward to really asking him that question.
Has he seen the film yet?
Yeah, he has seen the film, but I never asked him that specific question, I'm sort of afraid. But maybe we'll have a drink and talk about it.
I mean you showed him MARWENCOL, I figure he was into that.
Yeah that was a big thing, was actually showing the town the first film Marwencol and we translated that into Italian, showed it in their little theater that you see there and I think that made an immediate difference, because they're used to reporters coming and doing a two minute piece for TV, "Oh look at this town", and so they're like, "They're gonna be here for six months? What is going on?", why do they need six months and everybody else needs two hours?.”
After they saw that, I think they were like, "Oh, it's like a portrait of us, okay", and I definitely gotta hand it to their artistic sense as a town, which I can only presume came from this play that they do, that they sort of allowed this to happen, because they were performing for us too, I mean it's a representation of them, but it's still a performance.
Right, and their lives gravitate to that format, so...
Totally, yeah, so I mean they were playing themselves, both on stage and for us, which is sort of documentary, you're trying to get people to play themselves, because that whole idea of, "Oh well they forgot the cameras", never happens, by the way, never fucking happens, excuse me. It's a lie if you think it does. But what does happen is people will get used to their role and if you set up an honest relationship, that performance is a representation of their reality.
And how they play themselves is always interesting.
The topic of the implication of the documentary is of course an interesting one; being observed changes behavior and all that, which is what makes DON’T LOOK BACK such a pivotal documentary.
Good point. Talk about somebody putting on different angles...
That sort of awareness, I guess, transitioning into degrees of performance.
Totally. Good call.
But I love this idea that usually when you show your film to an entire theater's worth of people, maybe it’s usually significant to like five people, really, but you're playing to the whole town to get them on board, so what was that post MARWENCOL screening Q&A like?
I knew right away, the first thing I wanted to do was show them the rough cut - I was years away from it at that point - but I remember thinking, "If they're all in agreement and they're just polite about it, we failed.". What you want is the kind of response that you see in those meeting scenes in the film, which is like, that wonderful Italian arguing, which is not arguing the way I would think of it. It's arguing in a really wonderful, beautiful way with each other...
Yeah, exactly. And that's what we got out of Marwencol. I remember people at those church steps saying, "Well, which one of us is Mark and which one of us is the dolls?" I thought okay, at least they're committing to the process here and I would argue that none of them are -- or, they're all Mark and they're all the dolls, but some people would worry that Andrea was Mark -- there was much discussion about that.
It's not that I think Andrea is Mark or anything like that, but there's no way he can’t relate to the idea of a man living in his creative imagination.
Yeah, no, he was really taken with Mark and they've actually become sort of pen pals through me in a way. Now I have something on my laptop that is a Marwencol photo of recent that includes a very tiny painting from Andrea. It's like the two movies kind of smashing together. And Mark actually gave me notes on this new one, so it's been really fun... I mean they are in a way kind of doing similar activities, you know?
Yeah, I don't know what that would be. I'm thinking more double feature. I don't know why people always have to do three, it's not always necessary.
Well, I mean if they end up merging organically, then...
Right, sure, but you could end up with Return of the Jedi, if you're not careful... maybe a double feature. Now that I'm done, I'm thinking, Marwencol starts and it's sort of the beginning of creativity and as Spettacolo finishes, it's like a possible end of creativity. Creativity's end is threatening. So maybe that's the arc.
If somebody were to have asked you five years ago, "Why are both of these subjects appealing?" what might you have answered? Are Mark and Andrea different ends of the same coin?
Mm-hmm [affirmative]. Yeah, no, I know what you mean, I don't know. As you probably know too, it's hard to say why.
I have said in the past that “it's because I'm interested in art as therapy” and all these things, but I think it's also much more of a gut thing and hopefully it goes deeper than that.
You're committing five years of your life to get a sense of this, right? I think that I admire both those folks for how they have chosen to play out their lives and I think there's real courage there and I gain courage from it and from being around them and even making the film. There's a line toward the end when Andrea’s is really in a state of crisis and he asks, "Why are we here tonight to do this strange vigil? It's something that helps us to live better."
He's talking about theater, but in my mind that's sitting in a movie theater together and reading subtitles and talking afterwards. That's a small thing and it could be scooted off with the next whatever-the-next-big-wind so you gotta protect it. It was interesting to make that film and always feel like you were doing some variation on one of the scenes. And just before the film came out, I really was feeling that scene where he's trying to explain that, "Hey it's not how other people think about it, it's the fact that we've done it." You need these reminders.
“Sometimes you'll be bored, sometimes you'll find it ugly…”
Yeah, exactly, but that's not the point, the point is that you've done it together and that itself is the art, right?
Right. I’m always moved by the theme of creativity as a means to sort out whatever is going on in the artist’s life, but never has that been explored as literally as in your film.
Right, no you're totally right, and I mean, how messy creativity is too. And a movie like this is designed to put a frame on it, like, ‘oh it solves all problems’. But it's only a crutch and you still have to live your life - it's totally messy; the beauty of it, the pain in the ass of it - really trying to understand that it's a struggle.
Where your film becomes especially fascinating, is when you come to understand that this literal analogy for creating art is also capturing the hardship of sustaining the flame.
Sustaining the flame is a good way to put it and I hope that the movie is a chance for them to take stock in what they have achieved and how they could move forward. And how maybe this isn't the exact way to move forward.
And I think, having talked to them recently, I feel like they're making changes, because, you know, you want that - especially in documentary you spend so much time doing it - you're not just documenting something that you know exists, you're trying to have a conversation.
You're trying to tell your subject something and I was just actually thinking about that this morning that, in a weird way, I feel like I was trying to tell Mark at the end, "Wait, I feel like you're falling inside this therapy.", when the dolls need the dolls, to like now the one six scale dolls need the 1/64th scale dolls, and I was like, "Where is it gonna end? You've created this thing, but you don't want to live in the real world, you want to live there? Don't you find that sad?”
That was just my way of telling my friend at that point, "You are at this crossroads. Understand this crossroads and do with it what you want, but to me as your friend, I see you at this crossroads.” Same thing with them. You hear some of the people say, "We wish we could put Andrea in a glass jar, but we can't."
Right, preserve him.
Yeah and he is a singular person and a singular artist, but the movie is designed to be winter, spring, summer and fall and the leaves fall off in the fall, but what comes back? So I think this is that time for them. It's like a sunset and a time to reflect and hopefully have a new day or whatever and you do see that with ... I don't know if you remember some of these folks, but Chiara, who's that wonderful assistant of Andrea who's always helping out...
Yeah, the one that gets through to him.
Yeah exactly and she's really come to the fore and Gianpiero, who is the one who has that speech about Citibank, who is always by Andrea's side. He's really come to the fore as well. You hope that there's that new blood that would continue that tradition.
She kind of makes me sad, only because not long ago she was of the wide-eyed next generation set to succeed the previous one, and now at this point, we're looking at the generation past and we can see what's become of youthful enthusiasm for the town’s cultural identity.
Yeah, no, absolutely, but I mean maybe a movie like this gives them stock into what their parents and grand parents did and it's funny what I learned in making this about tradition. I always think of the word tradition as something that's vital, because there's a lot of lip service to tradition.
But it can curdle after a while. And when your grandpa did it and when your dad did it and you just... I totally understand Giorgio's position in that film, I would want to play soccer too.
And also why should he necessarily connect with it?
Right, exactly, and it's not in the film, but there's always discussions among them of ‘if I'm not gonna be a principal actor, why am I spending six weeks in rehearsals for my two lines and three weeks of performance for my two lines?’ These are the things they are wrestling with and they were kind enough to let us show them that and brave enough to let the world see it.
Rock 'n' roll bands are faced with this all the time - is it better to burn out or fade away, but usually the music isn't about that very theme... unless you're Neil Young.
Yeah, you're right, right. No, you're totally right and they have a fine instrument to talk about it. I would love to see a play where they talk about that very thing. Somebody had suggested a play about a documentary that comes and makes them question exactly what we're talking about.
It's funny how little interest they have in ‘meta’, because their whole life is meta anyway... to the point that you hear that one comment from that guy, "Hey wait, I got an idea. The movie will be about a meeting where we’re all deciding what to ...", and they're like, "We did that". That was the 80s, get over it.”
But I mean, it becomes especially meta when it comes to parallel the decline of the actual town itself and a way of life that’s facing extinction...
Yeah, and their commitment to it and they feel trapped and again you gotta really hand it to somebody like Andrea, who as soon as I said that I was coming up against ideas like that, said, "Oh, you should reference the last La Sortita in 1994." he has a list of plays for me there. It's like, "Oh this has been discussed. Go research that….”