Beautiful Things

****1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Beautiful Things
"The desire to know where the documentary facet ends and the creative element from Ferrero and Biasin begins soon ebbs away in the face of bigger philosophical ideas."

Girogio Ferrero and Federico Biasin take the documentary form and sculpt it using music and performance art into a symphonic meditation on consumerism and waste in Beautiful Things. Composed, like a symphony, of four stories that could be viewed as movements - Oil, Cargo, Measure and Ash - the structure is carefully controlled, which makes the chaos that it partially documents all the more heightened. As with the equally excellent Spanish documentary A Delicate Balance, the connections between the people here are not immediately obvious but soon coalesce to form a wide-ranging view of what it means to be human in the modern world (it's one downside is it suffers, like Delicate Balance, from an almost exclusively masculine vantage point, although as with that film this is more of a reflection on society than the filmmaking). The film also has a playful quirkiness, the sort of unexpected skew that makes Werner Herzog's documentaries such a delight.

Van Quattro has grown up around the oil industry, playing in the empty spaces of the US Permian Basin, alongside the pumpjacks that reach 8000m beneath the earth, before growing up to work in them, as his father had before him. Vacant spaces are also a big part of Filipino Dan Tribunal's life as part of a small crew on an enormous 400m cargo ship delivering everything from monkeys to plastic across the world. Andrea Pavoni Belli, meanwhile, revels in silence because that's his job - to measure the amount of noise issued by cars, toys and everything in between in space-age looking anechoic (echo-free) chambers. Finally, we meet Swiss Vito Mirizzi who after a career making money from managing slot machines now finds more meaning in his job sweeping rubbish into an incinerator at a waste plant.

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Each of these men tells their story in carefully constructed monologues, but the desire to know where the documentary facet ends and the creative element from Ferrero and Biasin begins soon ebbs away in the face of bigger philosophical ideas such as human acquisitiveness, a longing for silence or a need for connection. The film is also punctuated by sharp reminders of our consumerism, with segments introducing each section, shot as though on home video, tracing the clutter of everyday lives but always drifting past a photo of family. These appear to time travel from the Eighties in decade chunks, and in each, children's toys and music build to almost horror-movie levels of cacophonic sound. Dancing in, towards the end, are another couple of players, a reminder, perhaps, of what we have created for ourselves.

Sound is key to the entire enterprise as Ferrero and music and sound collaborator Rodolfo Mongitore orchestrate elements of the men's memory - including the sound of a bride on her wedding day, the electronica of slot machines and the rhythmic thump of wrench on pipe - gradually building a soundscape of recollection that forms a crescendo towards the latter part of the film. The men also emphasise the impact of sound, considering the contrasting ideas of "the madness of silence" and "noise making us forget ourselves". "It's like the Alpha and Omega - the life cycle," insists one.

The directors use the emotional swell of the music to forge our connection to the men and nothing is left to chance in terms of images either. Just as musical motifs recur, so do some of those 'beautiful' things - a robot, a child's doll, a cuddly toy, sometimes loved, sometimes forgotten, reminding us of the ephemeral nature of much of our lives. They also make sure we understand the meaning of spaces and size, carefully detailing things such as the depth of the pumpjack with comparisons we can easily grasp, making the enormity a reality. One of this year's three Biennale College films at Venice, Beautiful Things is a real achievement, marrying big ideas to consummate craft, while avoiding pomposity and remaining accessible. See it on the biggest screen you can.

Reviewed on: 06 Sep 2017
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A symphony of consumerism and waste, built while detailing the lives of four men.

Director: Giorgio Ferrero, Federico Biasin

Writer: Giorgio Ferrero

Starring: Van Quattro, Danilo Tribunal, Andrea Pavoni Belli, Vito Mirizzi, Vittoria De Ferrari Sapetto, Andrea Valfrè

Year: 2017

Runtime: 94 minutes

Country: Italy

Festivals:

Venice 2017

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