Concern for social justice

Reality

New talent: Italian director Pietro Marcello  Photo by Indigo Film via The New York TimesThis underdog empathy is the animating force behind the work of Pietro Marcello, one of the most striking new talents in contemporary Italian films. But while they continue a rich history, Marcello’s documentaries — made on shoestrings, attuned to working-class life, open to a wide array of storytelling forms — are also a surprise and an anomaly, given the long dormancy of Italian film culture under the stranglehold of television broadcasters and the media empire of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Marcello’s 2009 breakthrough film, The Mouth of the Wolf (La Bocca del Lupo), which won prizes at festivals in Turin, Italy, and Berlin, is a twofold lower-depths romance, entwining the story of a middle-aged couple who met years ago in prison, and that of Genoa, a city that is long past its prime. “The aesthetical way of the cinema for me is also the ethical way, especially when you are telling real stories,”  Marcello said in an interview this summer in his compact editing suite in a shared office space.

The Mouth of the Wolf originated as a commission by the San Marcellino Foundation, a Jesuit group that works with the poor of Genoa; it invited Marcello to make a film about the city’s disenfranchised. Some religious organisations might have balked at the movie that he ended up making, but the Jesuits’ reputation as more liberal than other Roman Catholic orders was bolstered by the foundation’s embrace of The Mouth of the Wolf, which treats the love between a tough-guy ex-convict and a transgender former drug addict as the grandest of romances.

A native of Caserta, in southern Italy near Naples (where he studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts), Marcello, 35, was unfamiliar with Genoa, in the northern region of Liguria. But he remembered stories he heard as a child from his father, a sailor, who called Genoa “the ideal city.” Tucked between the mountains and the sea, its maze of narrow streets etched into steep hillsides, Genoa was once a prosperous independent republic and global maritime capital, and it remains an active port. But during the past century it has endured wartime bombings and the decline of local industry. Parts of the seamy medieval quarter, historically a red-light district and now home to a sizable immigrant population, remain stubbornly resistant to gentrification.

To prepare, Marcello lived in Genoa for a year, in a rough-and-tumble seafront neighbourhood, and researched the city’s history and literature. (It has always made its mark on visitors: Henry James marvelled at its “topographic tangle” and “close crepuscular alleys”; André Frénaud’s poem, The Silence of Genoa, evoking the dreamlike disorientation of wandering its shadowy streets, made a particular impression on Marcello.)

In Genoa, the layers of the past are visible everywhere, and Marcello said he relished the opportunity to make what he called “a nostalgic film about lost places and memories.” He added, motioning out the window of his editing suite at the busy thoroughfare Via Cavour: “I have a big conflict with the present. I can find no harmony here.”

Outside a Genoa bakery one day he spotted a strapping, mustachioed man with craggy features and a piercing stare. “His face expressed the film I wanted to make,” Marcello said. Over a drink the man, Vincenzo Motta, who goes by Enzo and seemed to embody the noble dilapidation of the city, opened up to Marcello, showing him his bullet scars and recounting his checkered biography. He said he was in a shootout with the police as a teenager and had been in and out of jail since, and the love of his life was a transsexual woman named Mary Monaco, who was disowned by her bourgeois family. “They had a very hard life, and they worked together to defend themselves from the pain of the world,” Marcello said.

A documentary that retains an air of mystery and reaches into the realm of myth, The Mouth of the Wolf is a generous film in both spirit and form. Its shape shifting speaks to the possibilities of narrative, the various ways that a lived reality, or an emotional truth, can be represented. The film weaves the couple’s history into a city symphony, scored to bursts of opera, that combines present-day images with stock footage and home movies, some nearly a century old. “We called it an archaeology of memory,” said Marcello, whose editor, Sara Fgaier, found these scenes of labour and leisure, of man and the sea, in film archives and in the troves of amateur filmmakers.

The lyrical narration framing the film alludes to Giuseppe Garibaldi’s departure from Genoa on his unification campaign of 1860. “The revolutionaries were motivated by adventure, hope, a utopian impulse,” Marcello said. “They didn’t want to accept the society of that time.” The fablelike opening and closing passages, of homeless “cave dwellers” on the shore, depicts these itinerant outcasts as figures of legend, literal castaways who “come from the sea.”  The couple’s story emerges gradually, in voice-overs and snippets of exchanged letters. Only toward the end are they seen together, in a long scene, facing the camera and revealing how they fell in love.

“Everybody calls it an interview, but it’s more a confession,” Marcello said. “After six months they were ready to tell their story.”

Monaco’s death last year makes for a sad postscript, but Marcello is glad she lived to witness the success of the film, which both she and Motta saw as “a kind of redemption,” he said. Marcello’s previous film, Crossing the Line (2007) — shot entirely aboard trains, mostly at night, on a dozen routes that traverse the Italian peninsula — was similarly attentive to those on the margins of society. A film of landscapes and faces, a portrait of a country and an economic system (many of the passengers are labourers seeking work), it views the railways as a symbol of both predestination and freedom. (The most memorable figure is an elderly former revolutionary who, in a bid for autonomy, makes his home on trains.)

Marcello is finishing a new film, about the Armenian-born, Moscow-based filmmaker Artavazd Peleshyan, who has been called one of cinema’s unheralded geniuses. (Jean-Luc Godard, among others, has championed his work.) Titled The
Silence of Peleshyan, it is Marcello’s first film shot outside Italy. It is also a concrete link to the Eastern European cinema that has influenced him profoundly.

Marcello’s work exhibits aesthetic ambition, but he said he remains motivated above all by uncertainty: “Doubt is my religion.” This constant questioning extends to the very practice of filmmaking. “It may seem like the act of using a camera is an important one,” he said. “But to ignore that there are everyday concerns that are much more ennobling for the spirit is to be blind in front of the frame.”

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