Some tell their stories in kitchens, warming hands and souls over coffee; others write confessions. For decades, the residents of the tiny Tuscan town of Monticchiello have turned their lives into theater. Each year, they gather to discuss art and their world until they land on a topic that reflects their most recent, urgent concerns. Word by word, they push and pull, challenging one another as they shape a production. All the world’s a stage, but in Monticchiello that truism is movingly real, especially because these days its aging resident-players have more exits than entrances.
Perched on a hilltop some two hours south of Florence, Monticchiello tends to be one of those towns that in English-language guidebooks rates a line or two in between chapters on Florence and Venice. One such book mentions the town’s “Teatro Povero (a folk theater production)”; another notes its “forbidding walls” and “medieval past,” assuring readers that it’s “well worth exploring” even if over all “there is nothing much in the way of sights.” These mercenary assessments are meant, of course, for harried, hurried travelers, including those of us lucky enough to shape a few precious days into something we call vacation.
In their documentary “Spettacolo,” Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen stay a while. Their most obvious subject is the annual production that Monticchiello townspeople have mounted since the 1960s, when some could remember the Fascist occupation firsthand. In the early years, the residents put on pageants that, at least from the modest documentation in the movie, seem like elaborations on other regional events, like the centuries-old horse race called the Palio in nearby Sienna. At some point, the Monticchiello residents turned to the more immediate past, revisiting, for instance, the trauma of the war and the day Nazis lined the villagers up, threatening to shoot them all.
More recently, the economy has fueled the spettacolo, which the movie’s notes define as “performance, spectacle or play.” That was certainly the case in 2012, when the bulk of the movie was shot over a period of six months. In interviews, Mr. Malmberg has said that he and Ms. Shellen happened on Monticchiello while on a vacation. (Mr. Malmberg and Ms. Shellen, who are married, share directing credit; he shot and edited the documentary, and she recorded sound.) They were ambling around, rather like the day trippers in the documentary, when they accidentally came across Andrea Cresti, an artist who turned out to be theater’s longtime director as well as the portal into this story.
There’s very little about the making of the documentary itself in “Spettacolo,” which assumes the point of view of the unobtrusive, not-quite omniscient witness. The people tell their stories directly on camera, at times with deep emotion, their reminiscences augmented by faded photographs and archival moving images. The history of the theater emerges gradually as assorted personalities — former partisans, an ailing woman, an indifferent son — click into place. Perhaps inevitably, Mr. Cresti, a charismatic figure with a gray beard and a leonine halo of hair, becomes the focal point as he struggles to turn the town’s latest collective concerns into its next big show.
As the spettacolo takes shape with fractious dialogue and insistent politics, it becomes evident that the filmmakers are less interested in the final play than in its production, in its process and multiple meanings. Nothing if not discreet (and sly), Mr. Malmberg and Ms. Shellen have shaped much of their material into four chapters that are named for the seasons. Each chapter is accompanied by ah-and-ooh beauty shots of the region, yet as winter gives way to spring and brown hills turn green, the day-to-day lives of the townspeople create a gentle, insistent critique of these seasonal postcards. Much like the town’s annual production, the movie is telling its own story dialectically.
That story can be so poignant and is so intelligently told that it feels wrong, almost insulting, to call “Spettacolo” charming, even if the movie is often delightful. In guidebooks, charm tends to be a commercial marker, a signifier for an imaginary, easily salable and consumable notion of authenticity. Mr. Malmberg and Ms. Shellen understand the allure of that imaginary world; they were, after all, on vacation when they discovered Monticchiello and their documentary is itself often lovely. Yet they remind you that people are not attractions and their homes are not museums, even if the global economy, its casual tourists and rich speculators are determined to prove otherwise.
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