2013; directed by Gianfranco Rosi; 91 mins
“I come across like a slut.” says one table dancer as she does her make-up. “It accentuates you” replies her colleague in a manner that suggests this conversation is a regular occurrence. Then out they go, from the cramped back area, filled with empty trays and stock to go and gyrate on top of a cramped looking bar to be occasionally ogled by half-interested young men.
This isn’t presented to us as a searing exposé of prostitution and exploitation but an observation as part of life on the Grande Raccordo Anulare (GRA or, Grand Ring Road) which circles Rome. Documentary-maker, Gianfranco Rosi shows us the encyclopedia of people who populate the outskirts of the Italian capital, be it in-depth as with the old man trying to figure out how to rid his palm trees of weevils, or the fleeting glimpse of a monk taking pictures or videos of passing cars. The main ‘characters’ take in prostitutes, a fisherman, a paramedic, some kind of prince and a father and daughter living in a cramped high-rise.
I’d better be careful not to repeat myself but it has to said that Rosi shoots his docos like no one else. Sure, there are documentary makers out there who choose a constructed style, such as Errol Morris or Alex Gibney but I can’t think of any other documentary I’ve seen – outside of Rosi’s other work – that finds stylish compositions and lighting within the environment he has (just check out that trailer).
What’s interesting here, though, is that there are so many opportunities for anyone else to really go off on one about injustices in the world and the degradation of modern life but Rosi doesn’t seem to need to do that. With simple, quiet, cinematic storytelling techniques, he presents to us a slice of life from which we can take what we will.
The tone of the film is so gentle, in fact, that no emotion is particularly foregrounded over another. So, the table dancers and the rather odd scenes with the photo story models raise both an eyebrow and a smile. Or the eel fisherman ranting at a newspaper article to the utter disinterest of his wife. They’re by and large just quiet scenes from the places where the rural meets the metropolis. This could stretch the patience, perhaps, in parts but from the moment I first saw that trailer, I was immediately won over by it. This was for me.
For me, I didn’t think of any films, particularly – rather I thought of Eastenders and Coronation Street because this is, at it’s heart, a soap opera… only in this instance, it’s the source material; it is the real life upon which soaps take their cues (used to, at least). Above and beyond a hill of beans, what the ultimate message amounts to, I’m not sure but like filmmakers such as Ozu or Mike Leigh, I think this particular doco is just content to let life be an interesting story in and of itself.