Hand Gestures

****1/2

Reviewed by: Rebecca Naughten

Hand Gestures
"A small gem of a film and one worth seeking out."

The traditions of bronze sculpture have remained unchanged since the sixth century. Francesco Clerici's enthralling documentary follows the process of making one of Velasco Vitali's famous dog sculptures at the Fonderia Artistica Battaglia in Milan - from wax model to glazed bronze - allowing each of the artisans involved to share the spotlight.

The film starts with Velasco sculpting a wax model of the dog, which then passes through multiple skilled hands - Lino adds structural rods to the model (the purpose of which only become apparent later in the film), Luigi methodically packs it into clay, which is fired in a kiln before molten bronze is subsequently poured into the resulting clay sarcophagus. Next Marius and Nico break the sculpture out of its cocoon, Tommi hoses it down before Mario welds on the more fragile parts of the piece and refines the metalwork, and then Caled applies the glaze finish. This process flows without interruption, intertitles or the film being broken into finite sections. With a fixed camera, each stage and speciality is silently observed without voiceover or soundtrack music, and mere monosyllables are exchanged between the craftsmen - the camera (and the viewer) become as absorbed in each part of the process as the men onscreen are.

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The title Hand Gestures (Il Gesto Delle Mani) comes from the quotation that opens the film, attributed to sculptor Giacomo Manz├╣: "Sculpture is not a concept. Sculpture is a hand gesture. In the gesture of the body lays the relationship with the world: the way you see it, the way you feel it, the way you own it." The camera gets in close enough to see these gestures - for example, Velasco heating strips of wax and then smoothing the edges into shape using his thumbs, or the painstaking way in which Luigi builds up the clay around the wax model. Standing with one hand behind his back (the image on the film's poster), he flicks his other wrist towards the work-in-progress in an almost offhand - but decidedly gentle - gesture, the blancmange-like clay slowly being deposited and accumulating to form a protective and supportive structure around the wax canine. In the absence of verbal interactions, we come to know the artisans through their gestures.

The foundry is more than 100 years old and the sense of history and continuity - effectively reflecting the timelessness of the craft - is conveyed via inserted archival footage of the foundry from 1967 and 1974, within which some of the artisans can be glimpsed in their younger years. This is not a craft that it is taught in schools - it is knowledge, experience and practice that is passed on in-house from one individual to another via apprenticeships. This underlines what a privilege it is to so closely observe these artisans - some of whom are approaching retirement - engaged in such highly specialised crafts.

With his first feature Clerici stays admirably out of the way, allowing his camera to observe and document the making of art without artifice or embellishment. For the viewer this becomes a fascinating experience as we witness an artistic endeavour from start to finish. On the journey to the end result, Velasco Vitali's dog is effectively created several times over with each set of hands leaving traces of their individual gestures. A small gem of a film and one worth seeking out.

Reviewed on: 11 Dec 2015
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Hand Gestures packshot
Documentary charts the work within a Milanese bronze sculpture factory.
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Director: Francesco Clerici

Writer: Francesco Clerici, Martina De Santis

Starring: Elia Alunni Tullini, Nicolae Ciortan, Mario Conti, Luigi Contino, Simion Marius Costel, Ilaria Cuccagna, Lino de Ponti, Tommaso Rossi, Caled Saad, Velasco Vitali

Year: 2015

Runtime: 77 minutes

Country: Italy

Festivals:

London 2015

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