The ring road around Rome, the Grande Raccordo Anulare is the most extensive urban highway in Italy and the locale for Gianfranco Rosi’s intriguing concept of a documentary, “Sacro GRA.” Punning on the “Sacro Graal,” or “Holy Grail,” this follow-up to Rosi’s American-set “Below Sea Level” takes a neutral look at intriguingly disparate lives near the highway’s edge, yet neglects to demonstrate why they should all be in one film. Diversity alone isn’t enough to warrant inclusion, and without deeper delving into personalities or a more cogent construction, the idea remains more absorbing than the final product. Docu fests await.
Rosi spent more than two years scouting and filming along the 43.5-mile freeway, and eight months working with ace cutter Jacopo Quadri, editing the material in a manner described as choral but more accurately labeled recurring solos. Though the idea of locating what’s distinctive about people living in proximity to a major city artery is itself fascinating, “Sacro GRA” fails to pinpoint the road’s identity, perhaps because it’s so varied.
Coldly constructed buildings, palm-tree groves, seedy caravans and flocks of sheep all occupy spaces around the thoroughfare, whose concrete pylons rise above river, fields and low-rise urban sprawl. While searching out locations, Rosi was inspired by Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities,” yet a novel’s structure doesn’t always work onscreen, and identifying the docu’s connecting thread indeed proves as elusive as the Holy Grail.
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Subjects are woven throughout the film, with varying degrees of frequency. One of the few seen often enough to acquire three-dimensionality is EMS worker Roberto. A warm and efficient presence in his ambulance, he’s later seen as a lonely figure Skyping with two relatives (unclear), and then touchingly caring for his elderly mother. Also given significant screentime is Francesco, a scientist who catalogues palm trees ravaged by the red palm weevil. Many indeterminate metaphors can be mined from his statement that the palm can’t defend itself against the hundreds and hundreds of mouths gnawing, sucking and destroying in their repulsive feast.
Cesare, one of the few remaining eel fishermen on the Tiber River, attests to endangered traditions and a sense of what existed before the GRA was built. Filippo is the stogie-chomping proprietor of a house emporium stuffed with bad 1980s-style furniture and fake statues, rented out for movie sets, theater companies and parties when not doubling as a B&B.
Two of the most interesting subjects are Paolo and daughter Amelia, down-on-their-luck nobles originally from northern Italy who have been transferred for unknown reasons to a new housing block. Rosi shoots father and daughter using a fixed camera located outside and above their main window, creating a fascinating though cold angle confirming the director’s surveillance-like sense of space. Other residents are similarly glimpsed through their own windows, including a South American family, but only Paolo and Amelia are granted enough time to pique more than passing interest.
Making brief appearances are a couple of aging prostitutes (presumed) and two go-go dancers, attesting to the more down-and-out side of the limbo-like neighborhoods that continue to draw Rosi close. In an artfully though unnecessarily overxposed scene, crowds gather staring into the sun in hopes of glimpsing a sign from the Virgin Mary, and later coffins are removed from ossuaries in a cemetery apparently slated for destruction. In keeping with Rosi’s style, there are no explanations and no interactions with the camera, and “Sacro GRA” suddenly ends without a sense of having come to any conclusions.
Even those partial to this sort of uninvolved p.o.v. will question how the GRA differs from other urban byways: Is it simply a locale where a cross-section of people from all walks of life reside? Financial health certainly plays a part — comfortably well-off people don’t live next to highways — though interestingly, Rosi shows that class alone isn’t a signifier. Sound use is especially rich, particularly the disturbing noises of weevils chomping along their path of destruction.