BEIRUT: Somewhere on the outskirts of Rome, a small man machetes his way through the roadside underbrush to get to a beleaguered palm tree.
His labors are wedged within a series of restless jump cuts, skipping from a flock of sheep to the highway traffic and back to this adjacent green belt.
The camera returns to find the man wearing a set of headphones wired to the tree trunk.
“Absence of noise,” he says, in Italian.
The gentleman who listens to palm trees is one of seven or so character clusters that preoccupy Gianfranco Rosi’s “Sacro GRA” (2013).
This feature-length documentary walked away from the most-recent edition of the Venice Film Festival with the Golden Lion, becoming the first Italian film to do so since 1998 and the first documentary ever to be so honored. It had its Lebanon premiere this week in the context of the Cinema Venezia screening cycle.
The GRA in question is the “Grande Raccordo Anulare,” the ring road – the most elaborate road system in all of Italy, it seems – that, as the filmmaker informs his audience early on, surrounds the capital like the rings of Saturn.
The pun on “Holy Grail” that Rosi is credited with embedding in his film’s title (“Gra” was also the name of the fellow responsible for designing the ring and getting construction started in the late 1940s) may be of some use in decoding this film – which international critics have termed diffuse.
Rosi’s camera scrutinizes the GRA in daylight and at nighttime, during verdant springtime and when winter layers the autostrade in grey slush.
The tree-listening man is a naturalist at war with the red palm weevil (Rhynchophorus ferrugineus), the bugs whose orgiastic (his term) reproductive cycle he’s been listening in on and recording. He intends to play back the sounds the weevils make when they’re in danger, in hopes of disrupting their libidinous tree eating, or at least terrifying them.
Eavesdropping on the sex lives of bugs in order to protect a tree that, as the naturalist notes, is unable to defend itself, is one thing. Relishing the prospect of revenge veers into idiosyncrasy, and the unnamed scientist demonstrates himself to be as delightfully odd as he is dedicated to the trees in his care.
The other ring road residents that Rosi’s camera looks in on include a fisherman (and his Ukranian wife) whose efforts to eke a living from the Tiber River are frustrated nowadays by the foreign eels infesting it.
A man who’s come into possession of a stately historic villa off the GRA rents out rooms, whether bed-and-breakfast style or for parties, film and television shoots.
A pair of ladies of a certain age appear to live in a camper van that plies the GRA. Rosi’s camera looks in on them as they apply makeup to one another and swap stories. One lady regales the other with the tale of how she’s been charged with indecent exposure, despite the fact that she is now fully clothed.
At an antiseptic-looking block of flats erected alongside the GRA, Rosi’s camera plays voyeur with a few households – gazing into a couple of bedrooms from above, as if from a facing window.
One flat features an eccentric older gentleman with a bald pate and a long beard who’s given to elaborate, free-association monologues inspired by the things he sees from the window where it seems he perpetually stands.
“Are the houses across the way occupied?” he wonders.
“The problem with [U.K. novelist] Lawrence Durrell,” he notes, “is that he worked for the foreign office.”
He also ruminates upon the importance of mustiness in a ripe eggplant and the utility of wicker chairs in the early days of commercial air travel.
His room is equipped with a set of bunk beds and a desk. Perpetually sitting here, her laptop open before her, is Amelia, the 20-something woman (her identity is never disclosed) who cracks wise in response to his soliloquies.
One curiously affecting series of vignettes features a middle-aged paramedic who, when not in an ambulance attending to the GRA’s dramatic car accidents – and pulling drunk men from the Tiber – visits his mother at the old age facility, gently cajoling her toward conversation.
“Sacro GRA” is a small production. The director wrote the film, from the original concept of Niccolo Bassetti, and shot it himself in HD video. The vignettes that comprise the work are amusing, eccentric and intriguing – or peculiar at least.
By the standards of award-winning feature film nowadays, Rosi’s documentary does indeed lack focus. It is hardly the first noted Italian film to be described in these terms.
Released in 1972, Federico Fellini’s “Roma” is a fluid, disconnected and chaotic thing. It also combines two distinct film languages – historical vignettes from what are assumed to be the writer-director’s autobiography with sequences that have the air of documentary footage circa 1972, carefully restaged.
It’s a cop-out and a cliché to nod at Fellini simply to account for a new film’s eccentricities. Yet, it is tempting to do so here.
Fellini’s representations of Rome in its many mutable facets have made his oeuvre a point of reference for all subsequent efforts. His fondness for shooting the city’s traffic, and traffic jams, resonates strongly here, as does the sheer variety and allusive complexity of the figures upon whom Rosi’s camera alights.
Fellini’s fictionalized autobiography is what binds the dispersed semi-documentary sequences of “Roma,” and the filmmaker had the healthy ego needed to do so. The absence of such coherence from “Sacro GRA” reflects the impossibility of disciplining these diverse and mutable lives. The voices of those who have been pushed to the edge of Rome cannot be made to cohere.
In an ancient mausoleum, a crew of workmen yank caskets from the walls and, applying crowbars, unceremoniously remove the long-reduced corpses.
On a wintry morning, a backhoe sits in the background behind a row of improvised crosses. The camera pans back slightly to reveal that the previous scene’s caskets are being placed in a hastily cut trench – a mass grave for the region’s historic residents.
Elsewhere, two women, a brunette and a blonde, prepare themselves for an evening shift. The brunette discusses how red lipstick makes her look slutty, though some have told her the color suits her. Her colleague won’t be drawn.
Makeup, she observes, only accentuates what you are.
Scantily clad, the two ladies sidle out for their evening’s labor. At a working-class diner aspiring to the status of sleazy nightclub, they’re employed as ad hoc go-go dancers.