I hadn't exactly fallen in love with Pietro Marcello's previous essay, La Bocca del Lupo. That didn't stop me from being so haunted by his follow-up feature, Bella e Perduta, that I simply had to see it again and try to understand better why this elegiac, lyrical pastoral fable - an exquisite assemblage of documentary footage and make-it-up-as-you-go-along fiction co-written with Abel Ferrara collaborator Maurizio Braucci - moved me so.
It's a moot point that it's not a film to everyone's taste. But in its earthen, resolutely local approach to story-telling and its digressive nature between record and myth, there is such a sincerity, such an ardent urgency to be part of the tradition and history of a country and a culture that you can't help be swayed by the almost effortless way in which Mr. Marcello syncs up its disparate elements. Beginning as a post-modern Pirandellian take on commedia dell'arte before moving into slow-cinema observation and abstraction à la Michelangelo Frammartino, the film evokes both Pier Paolo Pasolini's dionysian abandon and Robert Bresson's rigorous asceticism.
It's also a masterful feat of sleight of hand, since the end result has little to do with the original intention of the project, which fell by the wayside as Mr. Marcello's initial subject, Campanian farmer Tommaso Cestrone, died unexpectedly in December 2013. Mr. Cestrone had devoted the last three years of his life to prop up, against all odds and out of his own pocket, the palace of Carditello, just because he believed such a place and such a reminder of history should not fall into disrepair. In many ways, Mr. Marcello's film does the same towards a much less clear but certainly vivid pan of Italian rural culture and history.
The death of Mr. Cestrone swerved the project into a more fictional, improvised concept, as a figure of Italian lore, a "messenger between the living and the dead" in the shape of a Pulcinella (played by non-pro Sergio Vitolo), comes down to Earth from the bureaucracy of heaven to guide to safety Sarchiapone, a buffalo calf the farmer had taken under his wing. Pulcinella's route through Campania on the way to hand the calf to shepherd Gesuino (Gesuino Pittalis, effectively playing himself) is a small-scale version of Mr. Marcello's original project of travelling through Italy, but it performs the same function: allowing a glimpse into the passing of a rural world governed by seasons, where nature and man coexisted peacefully.
Nothing if not ambitious in its big-hearted, forceful desire to make people aware of the beauty passing them by, Bella e Perduta becomes an intertwining of improvised fiction and documentary realism as the characters, whether real or invented, fulfill a sort of pre-ordained fatalism, become links in a never-ending story that, like all dreams and fables, speak the truth in tongues (or in this case, Italian dialect). That dream-like, almost storybook aspect of the initial shock becomes, in a second viewing, more of a requiem for a past being slowly drowned under the flood of civilization, a lament for something that was and no longer can be. But, in showing how Carditello thrived again after Mr. Cestrone's death drew the attention it had never had before, it's also a film suffused with hope for the future, an affirmation of the cyclical nature of life and of the endless possibilites for renewal it brings - its open spirituality, less overly religious than powerfully animist, is also part and parcel of the film's strengths and flaws.
Flaws which, admittedly, do come through on the second viewing as well, especially as Bella e Perduta's central sections suddenly become stronger and more evocative and its ending more cloying than I'd remembered. Even while becoming aware of its shortcomings, though, the film never lost its grip on me, nor did it fail to move me with its exquisitely tuned sense of loss and hope. It's a remarkably delicate piece of filmmaking that has been minutely pored over and one of the most outstanding achievements I've seen in the area of cinéma du réel.
BELLA E PERDUTA
Italy, 2015, 87 minutes
With Tommaso Cestrone, Sergio Vitolo, Gesuino Pittalis, Claudio Casadio, Anna Redi, and the voice of Elio Germano
Directed by Pietro Marcello; written by Maurizio Braucci and Mr. Marcello; cinematography by Mr. Marcello and Salvatore Landi; music by Marco Messina and Sacha Ricci; production designer Antonella di Martino; film editor Sara Fgaier; produced by Ms. Fgaier and Mr. Marcello, for Avventurosa and Rai Cinema in association with Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna, Istituto Luce Cinecitta and Mario Gallotti
Screened August 9th 2015, Teatro Kursaal, Locarno, Locarno Film Festival press screening, and October 22nd 2015, Culturgest, Lisbon, DocLisboa opening screening