Simone Rapisarda Casanova’s The Creation of Meaning is a film set in a strange, mystical borderland. It technically takes place right in the middle of a single country, surrounded by Central Italy’s Apennine Mountains, not far from Florence. Yet the lack of a contemporary international border is irrelevant. In the opening scene a teacher, framed by the warm beauty of the countryside, explains to his students that they are sitting on what was once the Gothic Line. In the fall of 1944, this was Nazi Germany’s last major line of defense against the Allied liberation of Italy. The region’s pristine air of dolce far niente makes it a little hard to imagine, but this was one of Europe’s bloodiest battlefields. There is a temporal looseness here, in which the slow pace of rural life brushes up against the history of the land. This puts The Creation of Meaning into conversation with a number of other recent Italian agrarian triumphs, including Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte and Roberto Minervini’s Stop the Pounding Heart.
Casanova uses the relics of the German occupation and the partisan resistance as tools to unlock the doors of time and memory. The central subject is Pacifico Pieruccioni, an aging shepherd trying to hold onto his home despite the present economic crisis. He was too young to have actually participated in WWII, but he chats with other locals about what they remember. He also occasionally finds old guns and sells them to a military history enthusiast. On the whole, the community seems much more interested in retelling war stories than in discussing the present. Casanova even observes a local group of amateur reenactors and includes their performance, crafting a short film-within-a-film.
Yet despite this fascination with a specific period of the past, there are also images that assert timelessness in place of specificity. As the actors playing partisans sneak through a farm to surprise some Nazis, a neighboring donkey sticks out like a sore thumb. This isn’t because there wouldn’t have been donkeys in 1944, but rather because the animal represents an even deeper past. Casanova places his images of agrarian life outside of simple historical time. There are shots of individual landscapes that linger and portraits of small creatures that seem to breathe with their own rhythm. One close-up of a bright purple beetle stuck on its back possesses an odd urgency, as we watch it suspended in every dimension.
The most extraordinary image of the whole film comes from a community celebration, in which people have gathered to break bread. Some of them begin to sing an old folk song, its striking harmonies evoking a culture with roots deeper even than the musical organization of modes and keys that happened during the Italian Renaissance. Then Casanova cuts to a breathtaking shot of the mountains wrapped in fog, the song now folded into the landscape. It’s an extraordinary moment, a flattening of time and space by means of timeless beauty itself.
Yet life in this frequently magical place is not entirely liberated from the contemporary world. Pieruccioni goes about the house listening to political talk radio, a particularly hilarious contest of angry declarations and profane ad hominem attacks. More significant than the goings on in Rome are the economic changes happening nearby, as many farmers and shepherds are being forced to face the consequences of the financial crisis. Pieruccioni is hoping to live on in his house, now perhaps only possible if it is purchased by a well-off foreigner who is looking for a seasonal Italian residence.
Many of these newcomers are Germans, now occupying financially what they once held with artillery and fortifications. On the one hand this specifically evokes the war, and the German most prominently featured in The Creation of Meaning is an unwittingly perfect example of the obliviousness those in positions of privilege have to the ironies of history. Yet the landscape looks down on these proceedings with a knowing smile. The return of the Germans compresses the distance between the 2010s and the 1940s. The echoes of the past are wider than one conflict, even that of the Second World War. This resonance, constructed from breathtaking images and a wonderful softness of direction, brings Casanova’s film into contact with the eternal.
This review was originally published during New Directors/New Films on March 19, 2015.