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A ragtag assortment of post-beatnik down-and-outers share their broken-down ideals in Gianfranco Rosi’s exploitative “Below Sea Level.” Disguised as a sympathetic portrayal giving voice to a group of dropouts in the California desert, this overlong docu is slow to start, then turns from dull to intrusive. Rosi may have won his subjects’ trust during his two years there, but he’s forfeited the faith of the audience; still, enough programmers will buy the claims of non-judgmental vision to ensure a decent fest life.

Deliberately cutting themselves off from a world that has dismissed them, the residents of Slab City (featured in “Into the Wild”) are a sobering — though often not sober — group, protecting their privacy within the rusty vehicles they call home. Rosi focuses on seven members of the community, occasionally taking his camera where it doesn’t belong: Would he have included an oral sex scene in a docu about a loved one? Doing so here increases the sense of these people as freaks — surely not the intention. Tech credits, from sound to image, are solid.

Below Sea Level

  • Production: A 21oneproductions production. Produced, directed by Gianfranco Rosi.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Rosi; editor, Jacopo Quadri. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Horizons), Sept. 1, 2008. Running time: 110 MIN.
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