“Dreams and fables, though imaginary, should tell the truth.”
This is among the many morals of Lost and Beautiful, a new film directed by Pietro Marcello (The Mouth of the Wolf) and narrated by a buffalo. Its other protagonist is a Pulcinella of the commedia dell’arte tradition, who here serves as an intermediary between the living and the dead. As is probably obvious, this is not a documentary.
It did, however, begin as one. Marcello went to the small southern Italian village of San Tammaro to make a film about Tommaso Cestrone, a local hero. The palace of Carditello, once a residence of the 18th century Bourbon Kings of Naples, had fallen into disrepair. For years it was mostly the default property of the Camorra, the Campanian crime syndicate. Tommaso decided to protect the property and advocate for its preservation. His work as a groundskeeper was entirely voluntary, and garnered him the nickname “The Angel of Carditello.” He was once assaulted, presumably as a result of stepping on the toes of the Camorra, but he never gave up.
Marcello filmed him at work both as farmer and caretaker, herding his livestock and staring into the beautiful frescoes of the palace. Then, shortly after the Christmas of 2013, he suddenly passed away from a heart attack. It was not long before the Italian government finally stepped in, acquiring Carditello for the Ministry of Cultural Heritage just a month later. Suddenly this documentary portrait was given a double resolution. Yet instead of leaving this tragic story as it was, Marcello honors and mourns the Angel of Carditello by using the footage of his life only as a starting point for a fable that situates him between humanity and nature.
And for that he needs the help of a buffalo and a masked clown. Lost and Beautiful begins in a loosely conceived heaven, in which a bureaucratic army of Pulcinellas billet together in an ancient ruin. Tommaso, now deceased, has asked that his buffalo calf, Sarchiapone, be given the gift of speech so that it may tell his story. Pulcinella sets out for the mortal world, collects the lonely buffalo from the now-state-owned Carditello, and then the two set out on a journey with no obvious destination.
The world in which they travel is an ancient one, or at least it evokes a context of centuries past. Marcello surrounds them with the lush music of Gaetano Donizetti, Antonio Scarlatti and Ottorino Respighi, enriching the landscape with both a classical sense of order and a romantic communion with the grandiosity of nature. Lone trees stand against the sky like monuments to a forgotten religion. Herds of buffalo bathe and graze, occupying the landscape with the bored authority unique to members of the cow family. There’s even a magic pond, humbly offering Pulcinella the change he may need. Gesuino, the farmer and friend who will eventually take custody of Sarchiapone, sits in a cave with a beautiful view of the countryside and recites the idealistic, bucolic poetry of Gabriele D’Annunzio.
Yet neither wanderer gets to live for long in this peaceful, imaginary space of environmental harmony. For one thing, neither is in control of his own destiny. As Sarchiapone explains, they are both servants, he to humans and Pulcinella to the immortals. They must put their trust in a universe “which is too busy to stop and explain itself.” For Pulcinella this means a gradual journey toward mortality, perhaps along with the revelation that the magical afterlife from which he hails doesn’t actually exist. For Sarchiapone it means something much less pleasant. As a male calf, he is essentially useless to the practical farmers of Campania. Without the ability to produce milk, he is only valuable for his meat.
He is thus resigned to his fate. “Despite everything, I’m proud of being a buffalo. In a world that denies we have a soul, being a buffalo is an art.” He suggests that, even if humans don’t understand it, maybe on other planets there are people who see into his soul. That said, Lost and Beautiful makes an excellent case for acknowledging him on this earth. Its grounding in reality is the key. No footage of an animal can ever really be fictional. The buffalo appear just as they do in life, representatives of a natural world that contemporary society ignores. The same is true of the equally real Tommaso, who Marcello repeatedly returns to of over the course of the film. His presence, a reminder of stewardship over the landscape and the past, fits beautifully into the fable that Marcello has constructed around it. Lost and Beautiful sees him and his mission as symbols of the memory of a beauty that, at least outside the fantasies of the cinema, is now mostly lost.