Director Jeff Malmberg tells Nonfictionfilm.com he stumbled upon picturesque Monticchiello 'completely by accident and completely like crazy'
The next time you're motoring around Italy don't refrain from veering off the beaten path. It might change your life.
That's what happened to filmmakers (and married couple) Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen. They made dinner reservations in the Tuscan village of Monticchiello a few years ago and wound up staying for much more than supper. In fact what they discovered in the piccolo città (pop. 136) became the subject of their new documentary Spettacolo, which just premiered at the SXSW Film Festival.
I would hear tourists say, "Is this a real town? Where are the shops?" Not thinking a hill town might actually be inhabited by people.
On that initial serendipitous stop in Monticchiello, Malmberg and Shellen met a local artist who would become their entry point into a remarkable tradition carried on by the townspeople: for 50 years they have put on a play each summer in the town square. Not a production of Pirandello or Pinter, but a drama of their own creation that is meant to address political and social issues facing the village. In short, they work out their communal problems on stage.
"Every issue the town has faced in its history - their near annihilation by Nazis, the disappearance of their farming heritage, the commercialization of their land - has been dramatized and debated by the villagers in the center of town," as SXSW put it in the festival catalogue.
Andrea Cresti -- the man Malmberg and Shellen met their first night in Monticchiello -- has served for decades as the driving creative and organizational force behind this unique civic tradition (sometimes referred to as 'Teatro Povero" or "poor theater"). Adopting a largely gentle approach -- that sometimes careens into exasperation -- Cresti coaxes the production to life, like a conductor at the head of an often-distracted orchestra.
The process begins in the winter with a meeting of the townspeople to discuss ideas for the upcoming summer's production. Slowly a theme emerges that appeals to all, or at least enough to move forward. The townspeople not only develop the idea of the play, they also perform it -- with Cresti guiding their interpretation of the roles.
Spettacolo is as far from Under the Tuscan Sun as you can get, and still remain in Italy. Yes, the imagery of the ancient town and gorgeous countryside pop with striking beauty, but this is not a sentimental postcard. The film resonates with profound themes that relate to us all -- what sort of life is worth leading? What are we losing as we lurch toward an ever more urban and technologically-driven society? Under the poetic direction of filmmakers Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen, Spettacolo is spectacular.
In those rare moments when Cresti isn't absorbed by the production, he often sketches in his studio. What first at appear to be doodles transform into evocative artworks themselves.
"He can't help but be an artist, I think," Malberg said. "It just oozes out of him. Even accepting the challenge of two Americans telling his story was an artistic gesture... Andrea had this strange confidence in us. I'd like to think it was his artistic sensibility or something that made him think we'd be the right people to do it."
Doubt over the future of this theatrical tradition hangs over the film and the town's aging population. Cresti at 75 remains a vital artistic force, but the village's few young people often appear more fascinated by their cell phones than the season's play.
"You can kind of see what it means to that younger generation -- it's an obligation. There are other forms of entertainment now," Malmberg noted.
It's clear from the film that whatever becomes of the tradition -- whether it endures or dies -- will determine the fate of the village. Malmberg said many other Tuscan towns exist as mere decorative shells.
"If you look at any other Tuscan hill town it's hollowed out... it's all wine shops, cheese shops," Malmberg said. "Some of them [towns] have been bought up entirely by American hotel companies but they've left some of the people there as color and character."
In effect, in these other towns "real" villagers are cast as extras in a bit of theater put on for the entertainment of tourists -- a fantasyland mirroring preconceived notions. Ironically, by turning its town into the stage for a play, Monticchiello has maintained its authenticity. As Malmberg put it, in Monticchiello it's the tourists who are the extras.
Watching Spettacolo I found myself wanting to book a trip there to experience the town and its theater piece for myself. Viewers of the documentary may feel a similar reaction. I asked Malmberg if his film ended up boosting tourism to Monticchiello whether that would constitute a good or bad thing.
"To me it would be a good thing," he said. "I think what you don't want is uninformed tourism. [But] a tourist who comes because they've seen Spettacolo means they want to see that play... Interested documentary fans who appreciate them for them -- I think they could use more of that."
Malmberg said Spettacolo may screen for an extended period in Monticchiello and may travel to other Tuscan towns as well, where locals could perhaps draw inspiration from the village's example. But the potential lessons from the film are relevant to people well beyond the borders of Tuscany, or Italy alone.
"What happens when you put art at the center of your life 50 years? What's that life like? In a time when art is sort of being 'weighed,' so to speak, I'm glad that in this small way there's a message about what art can do for you," Malmberg said.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.