Nestled in a hill in Italy’s Tuscany region lies the tiny antiquated town of Monticchiello, population 136, where every year a grand play is staged. The unique thing about this production is that it’s performed by the village’s inhabitants – and, more fascinating still, it’s based on their own lives, with new material annually scripted to reflect their current circumstances. For fifty years, this tradition has allowed citizens to express, and cope with, their experiences in a dramatic public forum, a process which has invariably done much to shape both their present and their future. It’s a case of art and life imitating (and influencing) each other in myriad intertwined ways – and as conveyed by Spettacolo, a fantastic new documentary opening in New York on September 6th, it’s a ritual that, like Monticchiello itself, is now on the verge of extinction.
In a certain sense, Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen’s film is a kindred spirit to Charlie Kaufman’s 2008 masterpiece Synecdoche, New York – except, of course, that it’s real. And it also covers terrain familiar to the directors, whose fascinating 2010 documentary Marwencol concerned a brain-damaged man who built a fictional WWII Belgian town in his backyard – populated by action figures that served as proxies for himself and others he knew – and then used it to act out dramas as a means of confronting his own problems. Trauma is similarly at the heart of Spettacolo, whose title is an Italian phrase for “performance.” The men and women of Monticchiello began their shows fifty years ago, after a group of 70 local partisans engaged 300 fascists in a firefight on April 6, 1944, and for their trouble were visited by a Nazi commander who threatened to execute them all – only to have his mind changed by the pleas of one brave woman. That incident formed the inspiration for their first play, and they never looked back, having now found an ideal vehicle for “talking to each other and saying what we thought of a problem.”
Thus begat their “autodrama,” which has endured for half a century thanks, in large part, to the efforts of three men – actors Alpo (“the heart of the theater”) and Arturo, and director Andrea. With Alpo having passed away from Alzheimer’s and the aged Arturo relegated to embodying the wise elder, it’s Andrea who shoulders most of the burden of Monticchiello’s upcoming production in this remote hamlet, whose air of sleepy old-world tranquility (all cobblestone streets, narrow passageways, and surrounding farmland frequented by cattle and dotted by cottages) is beautifully conveyed by Malmberg and Shellen’s cutaways from the action proper. Their inviting orchestral score, meanwhile, further enhances a sense of the region’s modest archaic grace, where cats stretch and wander about with casual freedom, pigeons are rescued from harm by caring individuals, and men spend considerable time sitting on park benches engaging in friendly conversation and argument.
No matter its atmosphere of relaxed quiet, however, all is not peaceful in Monticchiello. An ongoing economic crisis has left its poor residents even poorer, and Spettacolo finds them commencing work on a script that addresses their ongoing cynicism, resentment and distrust of the financial institutions responsible for their adversity. It’s an undertaking carried out via brainstorming meetings and rehearsals led by Andrea, which reveal these working class folks as legitimate artists in their own right. They’re “amateurs” both able and eager to translate their contemporary hopes and grievances into a nuanced, entertaining allegorical work. And just as Andrea keeps tabs on a wild fennel plant’s growth as a means of marking his creative progress, or the way the stage sits directly in the middle of a street, the fact that the show’s rehearsals are arranged around everyone’s particular schedule further underlines how the plays are an integral, organic part of Monticchiello itself.
It’s fitting that the 50th-anniversary production’s plot concerns “the end of the world,” because in multiple ways, Spettacolo feels like the finale of a long-running true story. With young people (such as soccer-loving teen Giorgio, or Andrea’s B&B-proprietor son Francesco) increasingly uninterested in keeping the tradition alive, and with financial hardships making the town’s continued existence untenable – especially since local farmhouses are being developed into vacation getaways for the wealthy – Monticchiello turns out to be on the verge of disappearing. That’s also true for the play itself, which goes out of its way to avoid explicitly slandering a key investor by name (Monte dei Paschi), only to then lose that bank’s crucial funding anyway when it’s implicated in an ugly fraud scandal.
That bombshell confirms the endeavor’s timely relevance, although Spettacolo is ultimately a far more complicated portrait of Monticchiello’s defining custom. Bolstered by archival photos and footage of past performances, the film eventually arrives not only at opening night, but at a discussion about a prior, cataclysmic issue – namely, an earlier play based on the heated debate over a nearby housing development. It was a theatrical topic that so angered some participants, it resulted in a “rupture” that hasn’t quite healed, causing many to abandon the project for good. In that disagreement, directors Malmberg and Shellen locate the contradiction at the heart of the autodramas: they keep the town together and allow citizens to comprehend themselves and their world, but they also saddle them with a burdensome responsibility that, in turn, makes them want to ditch the play about their lives so they might be able to live those actual lives to their fullest.
It’s a dilemma without an easy answer, and – divided into four chapters, each one for a different season – Spettacolo shrewdly avoids trying to provide one, instead opting to simply understand its many subjects and their wholly exceptional institution. Intensely curious and deceptively profound about the ways in which art both liberates and heals its creators, as well as traps and suffocates them, Malmberg and Shellen’s doc is an engrossing examination of the thorny relationship between reality and fiction – a dynamic epitomized, finally, by Andrea’s sketch of a rustic house emerging from the top of a morose man’s head.