‘Spettacolo’ is a Lifeless Film About Live Theater in a Small Italian Town

The director of ‘Marwencol’ gives us a behind-the-scenes ticket to the Teatro Povero di Monticchiello.

An early review of Spettacolo suggests the film is decades too late in showcasing the small Tuscan town of Monticchiello and its unique summer theatre tradition. That might have been true if the film was about Monticchiello and its unique summer theatre tradition. But it’s about the possible end of the tradition and how, for the residents of Monticchiello who’ve been performing for half a century, that feels like the end of the world.

Every summer for the last 50 years, the people of the tiny medieval village present an “autodrama,” which is a sort of documentary theater. The outdoor plays star the citizens as themselves and the whole performance is inspired by their lives and whatever has been going on in the world, whether globally or locally. With the surviving original performers now in old age — a third of them has already died — and few young people in town, the company questions its future.

That combined with the real outside world seeming to be going up in flames — Italy’s banking crisis and its effect on the theater’s funding is a particular worry — inspires the townspeople to make their latest production apocalyptic. The story of this particular play was filmed over the course of a year by Jeff Malmberg (Marwencol) and his regular producer, Chris Shellen, who now makes her co-directorial debut, and what they’ve captured is a beautiful location enveloped by an invisible dark cloud. As the doc plays out, characters die, others drop out, financial troubles keep mounting.

You’d think with the layered themes and all that seems to be going on that Spettacolo would be a captivating work, but it’s surprisingly lacking in drama. Things happen, but we never feel much of it from the outside. Storylines that have promise, such as one involving a young man in town who not only takes part in the theater but hopes to help continue it with his own eventual children, go nowhere. And there are no other characters to care about, save for maybe the director, Andrea Cresti, and that’s only because he’s the most prominent.

The lack of narrative intrigue — there’s a narrative drive, of course, the finishing and performance of the play, but nothing compelling along the way — and it not being much of a character piece would be fine. At times, Spettacolo is perfectly Wiseman-like in its observance of the institution that is the Teatro Povero. But that’s not what Malmberg and Shellen are going for. They’d be satisfied with it being seen as just a transport system to put the audience in this wonderful place and witness its fascinating culture, but that’s not enough, especially when it’s clear they would prefer it be more.

As a record of one year in the behind the scenes life of Monticchiello, it also has value, and there is some historical background given on the origins of Teatro Povero and some other significant autodramas the town performed in the past. The basics are covered for a film about their theater tradition. You’ll probably never forget this extraordinary town. But the film itself is largely unmemorable.

Admittedly, I am not a fan of Marwencol, either. Malmberg finds very interesting subjects deserving of documentary attention, but I don’t find what he does with them engaging. Spettacolo is actually a more disappointing effort since there’s so much there to work with, from the multi-documentary aspect to the doom and gloom explicitly felt by the townspeople that never translates emotionally to the viewer.

Perhaps a simple history of Teatro Povero would have been the way to go after all, even if too late. Or a straight-on recording of this particular play itself. One issue that most documentaries about the making of something have is the notion that the finished piece is the real selling point, and we rarely get to see it. With Spettacolo, the documentary within the documentary is what I’d rather have been watching.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.