How a Small-Town Theater Project Became a Study in Post-Industrial Life

The new documentary Spettacolo captures a Tuscan village’s annual play.

Michael Atkinson

Residents of the small Tuscan village of Monticchiello prepare an annual play about the previous year of town life. (Courtesy of Grasshopper Films)

The new doc­u­men­tary Spet­ta­co­lo has such a sump­tu­ous­ly rich and deli­cious sub­ject on its hands, it’s almost as if the film coa­lesced organ­i­cal­ly out of sheer fab­u­lous­ness. In the absurd­ly adorable, medieval Tus­can vil­lage of Mon­tic­chiel­lo, the entire vil­lage of 136 stages a unique, very per­son­al play about itself, every year. For 50 years now, near­ly all of the cit­i­zens par­tic­i­pate, or have par­tic­i­pat­ed, often play­ing them­selves and mus­ter­ing the text of the play from what hap­pened in their lives over the last 12 months.

The town is aging and shrinking, and by 2016 the global economic crisis had sucked away the play’s sponsorship.

The Mon­tic­chiel­lo auto­dra­mas” have explored the village’s expe­ri­ence of chang­ing sex­u­al and social norms, eco­nom­ic tra­vails, Italy’s bloody Years of Lead, mod­ern­iza­tion and so on. It all began in 1967, as a way for the vil­lagers who had been par­ti­sans fight­ing Fas­cists dur­ing WWII to memo­ri­al­ize the expe­ri­ence — and Spet­ta­co­lo (“spec­ta­cle” in Ital­ian) fea­tures black-and-white footage from the pro­duc­tion, fuzzy enough to be mis­tak­en for footage from the war.

There were few in the audi­ence then; the play began as some­thing the vil­lagers did for them­selves. In the years since, the village’s ama­teur pro­duc­tion has become famous in Italy and has gar­nered cor­po­rate spon­sor­ship, nation­al reviews and a healthy tourist trade.

That is, until recent­ly — the town is aging and shrink­ing, and by 2016 the glob­al eco­nom­ic cri­sis had sucked away the play’s spon­sor­ship. Direc­tors Jeff Malm­berg and Chris Shellen’s movie is wist­ful and besot­ted about the vil­lage, but also infect­ed with an autum­nal sense of doubt, as every­one wor­ries that Monticchiello’s Teatro Povero (“Poor The­ater”) won’t sur­vive in the 21st century.

The film is essen­tial­ly a por­trait of an Old World enclave stub­born­ly resist­ing post-indus­tri­al­iza­tion, whose inhab­i­tants have come to define them­selves by their annu­al cre­ation. Malm­berg and Shellen, Amer­i­cans whose pre­vi­ous film was the remark­able out­sider-art doc Mar­wen­col (2010), are clear­ly in love with the whole dynam­ic, and as a result the film is like­ly to seduce more than a few view­ers into buy­ing a plane tick­et. Cer­tain­ly, it will be dif­fi­cult for many Amer­i­can view­ers to resist not only the vaca­tion porn, but the vision of a vil­lage so inti­mate­ly bond­ed by its years of col­lec­tive self-expres­sion that it’s near­ly a social ide­al, a com­mu­ni­ty that found the secret of togetherness.

The cen­tral fig­ure is Monticchiello’s suave, super­cool res­i­dent artiste, Andrea Cresti, the play’s orga­niz­er and direc­tor. A superb graph­ic artist and water­col­orist, Cresti is the lat­est in a line of impre­sar­ios, and his approach is patient, tol­er­ant and qui­et­ly pas­sion­ate. (Lit­tle is said, amidst the talk of eco­nom­ic down­turns, of how Cresti and oth­ers make their liv­ings; tick­et rev­enue for the Poor The­ater play may be a pri­ma­ry source of income for all con­cerned, sus­tain­ing the town in more ways than one.)

The six-month sched­ule begins with town meet­ings in the win­ter, where every­one attend­ing con­tributes ideas, aggre­gat­ed by Cresti into drafts of a fin­ished script. Attack­ing com­mer­cial moder­ni­ty is a recur­rent theme: One ear­li­er play trans­formed every per­son in atten­dance into a shop­ping con­sumer, buy­ing a prized canned prod­uct no one cared to define — until the cans were opened, and it was Tus­can soil being bought and sold. In anoth­er recent year, the town was split over allow­ing hous­ing devel­op­ment or not, and the result­ing per­for­mance (which we see a bit of on video) looks like a Samuel Beck­ett play, with the vil­lagers’ dis­em­bod­ied heads argu­ing like lost souls about whether the play they’re in should be about the devel­op­ment or not.

In the end, though we’ve glimpsed rehearsals, we do not see the play — pre­sum­ably, we would’ve had to buy tick­ets. After­ward, we watch the serene Cresti calm­ly eat­ing gela­to in a café, wry­ly watch­ing tourists absorbed not with Tus­cany or gela­to, but with their phones. The sense of what we’re los­ing as we plow into a tech­no-com­mer­cial future couldn’t be clearer.

Michael Atkin­son is a film review­er for In These Times. He has writ­ten or edit­ed many books, includ­ing Exile Cin­e­ma: Film­mak­ers at Work Beyond Hol­ly­wood (2008) and the mys­tery nov­els Hem­ing­way Dead­lights (2009) and Hem­ing­way Cut­throat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Con­duct.
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