Film Review: Spettacolo

An evocative but not fully fleshed-out documentary about a theatrical tradition that’s lasted for half a century and may be coming to an end in a Tuscany village.
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For more than five decades, hundreds (maybe thousands) of tourists have poured into the Tuscan village Monticchiello each summer to see its local talent—not a professional actor among them—present an “autodrama,” a play inspired by the community’s concerns, from greedy bankers to unemployment to gentrification.

In its early years, the community theatre was big on historical pageantry (awash in costumes and swords), switching gears when it decided to pay tribute to the villagers’ Partisan efforts in World War II. That piece, based on fact, paved the way for its current iteration. Embodying elements of collective psychodrama, the modestly mounted open-air productions are now essentially political theatre with a small “p,” and lasting as long as it has, the tradition is undoubtedly a curiosity.

But times, they are a-changing for this small, self-contained village, population 136 with many stray cats. For starters, funding for the theatre is drying up. More challenging, the largely grey-haired actors are dying, retiring or no longer able to participate for whatever reasons and the town’s young have no interest in coming onboard at all. The major commitment required—months and months of rehearsal—to pull together the yearly spectacle (thus the movie’s title, Spettacolo) has no traction for Gen-Xers. Their day jobs are all-consuming and recreation is found elsewhere. Perhaps they view the whole amateur theatre scene with a little distain—it is arguably quaint—though that’s never spelled out.

Scanning through an elegiac lens, filmmakers Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen, who learned Italian to make this documentary, recount the theatre and community’s evolution, including shifts in women’s roles and the mass exodus of younger people to cities that offer greater employment opportunities. The film’s centerpiece, interwoven with archival footage, is the theatre’s most recent—and perhaps final—production, the none-too-subtly dubbed The End of the World.

We witness the initial discussions, the sometimes contentious rehearsals and behind-the-scene bickering, and interviews with and snapshots of the various players. The most engaging character is Andrea Cresti, the theatre’s gaunt, weather-beaten and wild-haired 75-year-old director (a painter, too), who has given his life to these productions and knows its swan song may be in the offing. Backstage before the curtain rises, he tries to boost the actors’ morale by saying it’s okay if the audience doesn’t like the play. What’s important is that the troupe is still together. Talk about exuding defeatism, though clearly he’s intending to do just the opposite.

The film works as far as it goes, but there are gaps in the storytelling. We learn little, if anything, about the players’ lives. It’s only through reading the production notes, for example, I discovered Cresti was descended from royalty. More nettlesome, we hear nothing about the audiences or their viewpoints. I for one would like to know who they are demographically and what has drawn them to these outdoor productions year after year. Were they enjoying the plays as plays or as a charming cultural phenomenon? What role did the social ritual of the annual gathering or the town’s legendarypici pasta and/or the magic of the Tuscany summer scene—real and projected—play in bringing audiences in? Are audiences dwindling now, and if so, why?

There’s also something a tad disingenuous—or at least unaccounted for—going on here. The acting is often over-the-top, the calling card of many amateurs, but the productions themselves may reflect sophisticated expressionistic elements. In its latest play we see the actors’ heads (nothing else) emerging from the stage floor; shades of Beckett’s Endgame.

Cresti refers to his company as Teatro Povero, meaning “poor theatre,” and that’s literally what it is. Still, it’s hard to believe the theatre’s moniker is not somewhat influenced by iconic Polish director Jerzy Grotowski’s Towards a Poor Theatre, a book detailing his experimental aesthetic that (to oversimplify) eliminated all extraneous sets, props and costumes and made the actor—not even the play—the production’s focal point. It would have been helpful for Cresti to define his artistic vision and talk about his challenges in working with untrained actors. The productions are not placed in any theatrical context (What role, if any, does reality TV or agitprop play?) and the viewer never knows if the shows are good, bad or something in between. Do they even succeed in whatever it is Cresti is attempting to do?

Still, the filmmakers are very successful in capturing the rolling bucolic hills, the winding cobble-stoned streets and the decaying 15th-century buildings before and after they are renovated. A current controversy centers on the arrival of wealthy vacationers who buy up and remodel dilapidated farmhouses, transforming them into upscale summer homes in gated communities. These summer dwellers—admittedly bringing lots of money into the struggling community—are usually not around for more than two weeks a year and have no investment in maintaining the character of the village. Some of the actors are so riled up against the newcomers they’d prefer to see the community disintegrate into nothingness rather than change.

There is no satisfactory resolution for the town or the theatre. Both are innocent in a world that isn’t, though the actors’ naiveté is attenuated. Traditions—even the loveliest—have a shelf life, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Either way, their evolution or perhaps demise may be inevitable.

Yetit’s hard not to feels some compassion for Cresti (and nostalgia for the world he represents) as he slowly and sensuously eats a gelato, relishing every mouthful, while all around him youngsters are plugged into their headphones and oblivious to everything else. Lele Marcitelli’s haunting score is perfect.

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