Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi's fourth feature won him the Golden Lion at the 2013 Venice Film Festival. Sacro GRA was the first documentary to win the festival's top prize, but, peculiarly, it is also the most diffuse, most aimless, and least involving of Mr. Rosi's work so far. Where his remarkable El Sicario Room 164 recorded the long confession of a contract killer before the camera and Below Sea Level explored the inhabitants of the outsider American community of Slab City, Sacro GRA returns the director to his native Italy to compile observational vignettes shot over two years on the lives of those who, literally, live on the edges of society. Instead of one subject or one place, Mr. Rosi explores the on-ramps and off-ramps of Rome's ring road, the Grande Raccordo Annulare or GRA, and of those who live around it, somewhere in between the city centre and the suburbs.

     From the owner of a palatial mansion rented out for parties or film sets to the paramedic who travels the road daily taking care of accident victims, from the scientist studying insect infestations to the roadside prostitutes who keep a running commentary, these characters have something of the stubborn, the downtrodden, the downright eccentric that we have learnt to identify with classic Italian comedy. It's a reference that may be more in the viewer's mind than in the director's, as Sacro GRA is stylistically one with the previous films - total absence of commentary or musical illustration, a leisurely, laid-back rhythm that lets the various stories find their own rhythm in their own time, engulfing the viewer into the daily lives and the mindsets of its subjects, leaving the film open rather than directing the viewer through it.

     But where that was part of the strength of Mr. Rosi's previous work, here it is a design flaw, as there's a strong sense that there isn't much of a through-line between the various stories other than its (never identified) proximity to the GRA; as if the Roman ring road were merely a pretext that never truly justifies the attention lavished on these people. It all meanders along amiably but somewhat aimlessly, suggesting that the original idea of identifying and visiting the "invisible cities" underlying modern day Rome got "lost in translation" (or rather in editing) and never truly surfaces.

Italy, France 2013
92 minutes
Director, writer and cinematographer Francesco Rosi (colour); based on an idea by Niccolò Bassetti; editor Jacopo Quadri; producer Marco Visalberghi, Doclab and La Femme Endormie in association with Rai Cinema
Screened October 31st 2013 (Lisbon & Estoril Film Festival screener)


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