×

Film Review: ‘Sacro GRA’

Gianfranco Rosi explores Rome's Grande A the most extensive urban highway in Italy, in this intriguing but all-over-the-place docu.

With:

(Italian dialogue)

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.

Popular on Variety

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.

Film Review: 'Sacro GRA'

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 5, 2013. Running time: 82 MIN.

Production:

(Documentary — Italy-France) An Officine UBI (in Italy) release of a Doclab, La Femme endormie production with Rai Cinema, with the participation of Cine plus. (International sales: Doc & Film Intl., Paris.) Produced by Marco Visalberghi. Co-producer, Carole Solive.

Crew:

Directed by Gianfranco Rosi, based on an original idea by Nicolo Bassetti. Camera (color, HD), Rosi; editor, Jacopo Quadri; sound, Rosi, Giancarlo Rutigliano; associate producer, Lizi Gelber; assistant director, Roberto Rinalduzzi.

With:

(Italian dialogue)

More Film

  • 'Straight Up' Review: James Sweeney's Gay

    'Straight Up': Film Review

    There’s a tradition in movies, as vital as a hypnotic action scene or a swooning love scene, of dialogue so witty and nimble and rapid-fire that it comes at you like something out of a stylized dream. I first encountered that brand of high-velocity verbal jousting in “A Hard Day’s Night,” and later on in [...]

  • Cahiers du Cinema

    French Film Magazine Cahiers du Cinema's Staff Quits Over New Ownership

    The future of iconic French film publication Cahiers du Cinéma is in question after the outlet’s entire staff quit in protest over the brand’s new ownership. The 15-member editorial staff has spoken out against a perceived conflict of interest posed by the Cahier’s owners — a group of bankers, tech entrepreneurs and film producers that [...]

  • John Singleton Victoria Mahoney Spike Lee

    In Honor of Black History Month, a Look at Black Directors Who Made History

    In 2019, the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative reported that 2018 was a historic year for black filmmakers, noting a “record high when it came to hiring black directors.” The report reflected a significant change, showing the push for diversity both behind and in front of the camera. Though the numbers are increasing, the report also [...]

  • Benh Zeitlin Wendy Movie BTS

    Benh Zeitlin Goes Old-School With Stunts and Puppets for His Peter Pan Film 'Wendy'

    It has taken eight years for Benh Zeitlin to deliver the follow-up to his Oscar-nominated 2012 feature debut “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” But you could say the idea for “Wendy,” which reimagines the classic “Peter Pan” from the viewpoint of his female friend (played by first-time actor Devin France), has been percolating far longer [...]

  • 'A Quiet Place 2' Still Emily

    Box Office: 'A Quiet Place 2' Tracking for $55 Million-Plus Debut

    John Krasinski’s follow-up to “A Quiet Place” is expected to make plenty of noise at the box office when it hits theaters on March 20. The sequel, “A Quiet Place Part II,” is on track to earn $55 million during opening weekend, according to early estimates. If the horror film is able to capture the [...]

  • The Invisible Man Movie

    How 'The Invisible' Man Reinvents the Monster Movie for a New Audience

    In 2018, director Leigh Whannell met with Universal Pictures executives, thinking that they wanted to talk about another project. Instead, they brought up a surprising idea, to reinvent H.G. Wells’ “The Invisible Man” as a stand-alone thriller targeted to a new generation.  The studio had just endured a dismal start to the reboot of its monster [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content