Gianfranco Rosi is not the first filmmaker to try capturing the spirit of Rome, capital of the Italian Republic. The Eternal City is a cinematic icon, up there with Paris, Vienna and New York. And perhaps even more so than these others, the Rome of the movies is identified with glamour. Thanks principally to Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, the city is often perceived as nothing but style. Corrupt politicians, streetwalkers, nuns, mobsters, the aristocracy and the middle class are all filtered through a stylistic excess and the universal desire to be part of the upper-crust. The most recent example of this phenomenon is Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, odds-on favorite for this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Like La Dolce Vita, it is a whirlwind of fashionable parties and equally fashionable moments of profound reflection.
Sacro GRA is Rosi’s response to this age-old cinematic treatment of the city, with all of its glitter and throbbing music. This documentary, the first ever to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, is a look at Rome’s fringes. The GRA (Grande Raccordo Anulare), the highway that runs a loop around the city near its outskirts, is the film’s physical core. Rosi finds his subjects on and around the road, pulling together a fascinating mix of people far from the baroque churches and glitzy parties of Rome’s downtown. He finds a simply living elderly couple, a roving entomologist at war with weevils and an EMT who spends his nights in an ambulance hurtling down the GRA. An entire apartment building appears in front of the camera, documented one unit at a time from without. All in all Rosi bounces between about a dozen different individuals and families, all in the shadow of the great ring road.
Rosi’s images are often strikingly simple, if such a phrase can be used. His shots of the apartment building are particularly interesting. He certainly has his subjects’ permission to film, and has the rooms in question mic’d from within. Yet he’s chosen to shoot these apartments from outside, presumably from a building across the street. The effect has elements of voyeurism, of course, but the identical immobile frame of each different shot lends a quotidian beauty to these sequences.
The entire film seems to take place in a perpetual twilight, with an absence of any bright color. Rosi is resisting not only the stories of Rome’s glamorous reputation but its aesthetics as well. A brief sequence involving exotic dancers at a nightclub/restaurant focuses on the gray back rooms where they get ready and sneak off to take breaks. The only truly bright sequence involves an ecstatic religious event, a crowd of people outside to witness a solar miracle. Rosi fills the frame with so much light that the event is obscured, using another form of excess to resist the panicked style of a similar scene in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.
All of this comes together to present Rome as an Eternal City. Rosi’s most affecting moments are often mundane. An aging man gruffly reacts to a newspaper article about the biology of Italian eels while his wife sits silently working on a piece of rope. An older, bearded intellectual gets ready for bed while he spars with his daughter about her love life. The entomologist explains to the camera how he plans to fight the weevils before they destroy even more palm trees. All of these conversations feel as if they have been going on forever, unchanged since the beginning of time. Rome is old, but not only because of its ancient monuments. Its people have a relaxed immortality about them, regardless of how old they might technically be. The attitude of Sacro GRA is one of unassuming humanity, a confidence in the lives of Rome’s people without the need to dress any of them up in glitter or expensive hats. It’s an essential counterpoint to the city’s life in cinema, the wisest Roman film in years.