Charming And Introspective: Our Review of ‘Spettacolo’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - February 09, 2018
Charming And Introspective: Our Review of ‘Spettacolo’

Spettacolo opens with shots of an empty cobblestone street and an old woman hanging out a window taking joyless drags from a cigarette. We don’t need a tumbleweed to roll across the frame to understand the way of life in Monticchiello Tuscany, population 136. Directors Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen’s film Spettacollo spotlights a small hillside town where the villagers come together each year to put on a play. It’s a charming, wistful, and gorgeous looking documentary about using art to heal and a community in decline.

In 1944, Monticchiello suffered a terrible trauma. Amidst the fascist invasion, a group of partisans defended the village from the German forces in a long and bloody battle. The victory, however, was short-lived and the Germans soon returned, deploying even greater force. After overtaking the village, the Germans decided to make an example of the dissenters and lined up the residents for a mass execution. Ultimately, the Germans didn’t go through with the slaughter, but the villagers were still traumatized. After the Germans left, the villagers physical wounds healed but the fighting took an emotional toll that wasn’t going away.

As an act of catharsis, the village put on a play where they re-enacted the incident. The play, which incorporates villagers young and old, became an annual tradition. And over the past 50 years, the residents kept using the play to tackle the issues of the day like intrusive tourists, pushy foreign investors, and the country’s economic crisis. Spettacolo chronicles the long and bumpy road of one such production and examines how these plays affect the community.

What’s most interesting about this film is how participating in the play is a pain in the ass for everyone involved. Each year, putting on the production becomes a greater hassle. There are the ageing actors who struggle to remember lines, the wishy-washy cast and crew who don’t always show up to rehearsal, and the behind the scenes politics regarding what themes to address in the script. There’s also the play’s long-time director, Andrea Cresti, who can barely hold it all together — late in the film the poor guy just walks away in frustration and you can’t blame him. Cresti’s thankless job comes off like plugging holes on a sinking ship. Making matters worse, their set is literally falling apart and they’re about to lose funding. And yet, the play endures.

Watching Spettacolo, I couldn’t help but think of Yoda’s statement in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, when the little green ball of wisdom and ear hair says, “We are what they grow beyond.” The desire to carry on an annual play matters most to the people who began the tradition. In the years since the first play, 11 of its initial 33 founders are dead. And it’s clear that participating each year is no longer meaningful to the younger generation. Teens don’t need a release valve for their elder’s mental anguish; they have their own drama to deal with. The world has changed since the 1940’s and each generation has new aspirations, more commitments, and countless distractions.

For many in the the town, the play is a cultural institution, and like other cultural institutions, its significance faded over time. After 50 years of summer productions, the play has lost its lustre and the people still attached are just going through the motions. At one point, Cresti ponders whether it’s better to end the tradition now before it loses all meaning. Spettacolo forced me to consider my own habits and rituals and mull over their actual value to me. The film made think about which habits give me joy, which habits I continue out of obligation, and how often those criteria overlap?

Spettacolo isn’t a riveting watch. It’s quiet, unobtrusive, and unfolds at a leisurely pace. The subjects don’t have magnetic personalities and the events don’t build to a dramatic crescendo. Where the film does shine, though, is in how its naturalistic approach creates a wonderful sense of place. You’ll feel like a fly on the wall overhearing real people’s conversations. Every inviting shot of Monticchiello sang to my inner-wanderer like a siren call. Don’t be surprised if, by the end of this movie, you place a trip to Tuscany on your bucket list.

At first glance, Spettacolo shows us how people use art to heal, find meaning, and come together. But what’s most interesting is how Malmberg and Shellen use the town, its citizens, and the play to examine the cycle of life and death. Great art forces you to look at the world in new ways and I walked away from Spettacolo with pondering two of life’s biggest questions: Why do we hold on to the past and when should we let go?

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Victor Stiff is a Toronto-based freelance writer and pop culture curator. Victor currently contributes insights, criticisms, and reviews to several online publications where he has extended coverage to the Toronto International Film Festival, Hot Docs, Toronto After Dark, Toronto ComiCon, and Fan Expo Canada. Victor has a soft spot in his heart for Tim Burton movies and his two poorly behaved beagles (but not in that order).