Spettacolo: Synecdoche, Italy, by Rita Cannon
Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen’s documentary Spettacolo focuses on the tiny Italian village of Monticchiello, which for over 50 years has been putting on an annual original play starring the town’s own residents and depicting their own struggles and triumphs. But after decades as a local tradition and popular tourist attraction, the people of Monticchiello are now struggling to keep the event going.
The Teatro Povero di Monticchiello has a fascinating history, which Malmberg and Shellen spend the first part of the film immersing us in through an impressive amount of archival footage and photographs. Their first autobiographical production (the company members refer to the form as “autodrama,”) was prompted by a suitably dramatic incident in the 1940s in which the townspeople protected partisan soldiers from fascists and a large group of them were almost executed until a German woman made a heartfelt plea to an officer, inspiring him to take pity on them and spare their lives. After depicting this incident in a play at the end of the year, the company shifted to more traditional fare like classics and historical dramas, but no one found these productions as engaging as the one inspired by real events. Soon enough, the tradition of the annual autodrama was born.
The version of the company being newly documented in Spettacolo is a far cry from the one in the archival footage. Today, many of the original company members have died, and very few of the town’s younger denizens have come in to take their place. Between the dwindling number of participants, significant cuts to the Italian government’s funding of the arts, and an influx of tourism to Monticchiello that’s driving up property prices and hastening demolition of its older buildings, the conditions that gave rise to this unique institution are rapidly disappearing. Thus, the company decides the theme of this year’s play will be “the end of the world.”
Ultimately, the filmmakers seem much more interested in Monticchiello as a place than they are in the actual theatrical production, which is maybe just as well. What we see of the fully staged production has an avant garde look and seems overtly, specifically sociopolitical in a way that might alienate viewers if it took up too much of the film’s runtime. We learn just enough about the particular circumstances of this town to understand what they’re facing – like the sadly ironic fact that the bank that’s sponsoring the production gets shut down midway through the film for dishonest business practices. Likewise, we never delve too deeply into the personal lives of anyone in the film. When we spend a significant amount of time with one particular person, it always serves the purpose of underlining something about the production and the community as a larger unit. We see the stage manager calling cast members and struggling to fit their varying availabilities into a cohesive schedule. We see the director sketching set ideas alone in his studio. We see a brief montage of actors pacing around their homes, trying out different line readings.
This breadth-over-depth approach to depicting the play and its surrounding environment pays off; it gives us a bird’s eye view of the larger forces that are bearing down on the theater and the lack of personal detail comes off as respectful distance rather than shallowness. Combined with Malmberg’s dazzling scenic cinematography and a delicately beautiful score by Lele Marchitelli, Spettacolo becomes a peek into a rapidly disappearing way of life that one feels privileged to have been given.