Circle of life

Gianfranco Rosi on discovering the secrets of the city in Sacro GRA.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Gianfranco Rosi waiting for the light: "The light is a character. Any story with a different kind of light would be a different story."
Gianfranco Rosi waiting for the light: "The light is a character. Any story with a different kind of light would be a different story."

When I arrive at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York for my interview with Gianfranco Rosi, he introduces me to his old friend, jewelry designer John Hardy, who lives in Bali and whom he hasn't seen in a decade. Rosi suggests, in a Maurizio Cattelan inspired move, that I do the interview on Sacro GRA with his friend instead. "You'd find out all my secrets." Hardy leaves, and we find a spot underneath a poster of Erich von Stroheim in the Furman Gallery for a conversation about his Fred Astaire style of editing, light as protagonist and the transformation of place. Paolo Sorrentino told me of his film The Great Beauty "there is no destination. People are floating over life. Apparently, they are always still in the same place. They're destined to go nowhere." Rosi, on the other hand in Sacro GRA, shows us the lives on the outskirts, the constant motion of cars surrounding the city, "the Rome of the urban abusiveness."

Anne-Katrin Titze: How much did Italo Calvino inspire your film?

Gianfranco Rosi director of Sacro GRA: "This is the Rome of the urban abusiveness, of corruption. The people that live here are survivors."
Gianfranco Rosi director of Sacro GRA: "This is the Rome of the urban abusiveness, of corruption. The people that live here are survivors." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Gianfranco Rosi: In fact, Calvino inspired most of my films. When I started Boatman, my first film, I was reading Invisible Cities and I was in Banares, actually for that film and it was a city of death. What I like about the Calvino book is that it helps you create an abstraction and a transformation of the place itself on a level that is more universal. It belongs more to a state of mind than to reality.

AKT: I used this Calvino quote in my review - "You take delight not in a city's seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.” Your film works in a similar way.

Rosi's camera travels along the Grande Raccordo Anulare, the ring shaped 43.5-mile highway that coils around Rome.

GR: Many parts of the Calvino book do agree with the film. Calvino used to say that the perfect voyage, the perfect journey is one that's around the city. In this case the city happens to be Rome, but each city has its own GRA, its own Périphérique. Except, American cities don't have that. For them it's hard to understand. In Rotterdam [Film Festival], this woman from America came up to me, really upset, saying "I hated your film. I thought I was going to see something about Rome!"

At this point, John Wildman, coordinator extraordinaire for the press at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, discovers us sitting on the floor in the corner of the Furman Gallery in the dark. Suddenly the light is turned up brightly.

GR: No, it's nice without light! It's perfect, more like a confession, you know. This light is more like a police interrogation.

The light is being worked on.

AKT: You were talking about the American in Rotterdam.

GR: Yes, she said "your film doesn't look like Rome! There's no Vatican, no St. Peter's, no Colosseum." She was quite disappointed but this is what I wanted to do in this film. I wanted the audience to get lost in that meta space, the psycho geography of the space. The Romans themselves don't know where the film was shot. The idea was to open the circle and make it like an infinite line. Almost like a mental space.

Sacro GRA drawing by Gianfranco Rosi: "It helped me editing. I could never edit, if I hadn't this idea."
Sacro GRA drawing by Gianfranco Rosi: "It helped me editing. I could never edit, if I hadn't this idea." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Rosi now takes the piece of paper with my notes on it, turns it over and starts drawing the transformations in his editing process for me.

GR: When I was editing the film, I was opening this circle more and more. It became a line. On this line, I imagined there was a river, a bridge over the river, a fisherman on a boat on this river, the eel man, with a little house here, under the tent, there are some prostitutes.

At this point, the Furman Gallery lights go out completely.

GR: There is no middle way here, huh?

AKT: No middle ground. The Film Society lights are all or nothing.

They manage to get the light as it was before. Rosi continues to draw his map and explain.

GR: The prostitutes, the square with the church. Here there is a castle with all these little houses around. Here there's the hospital, the building with the windows, the ambulance that goes back and forth. All of this became a mental space. Around this area live 3 million people.

AKT: You turned the circle into the line as your mental map?

The Grande Raccordo Anulare, compared to a Saturn ring at the very beginning of the film, is shown in all seasons, during day and night, and structures our glimpses into the worlds we visit and revisit.

GR: It helped me editing. I could never edit, if I hadn't this idea. [He points to the circle around his drawing of Rome].

AKT: The circular becomes linear and then you go back and you revisit people. The palm tree scientist, for example.

The nobleman in Sacro GRA: "He's a real noble. Decadent. He lost everything."
The nobleman in Sacro GRA: "He's a real noble. Decadent. He lost everything."

GR: It's like music. With notes. It's like a musical partita. During the editing, I realised, the more information I was giving about the characters, the more difficult it was to cut and leave them. I had to find a point that was very small, very tiny, so that this story was somehow going on to the next story with another character. Everything had to be continuation. It's very difficult to edit because there's no beginning, middle or end. No proper narrative arc.

AKT: The effect is seamless.

GR: It was very difficult. Seven months of editing.

AKT: It looks effortless, the Fred Astaire style of editing. How did you pick the individuals whose lives you let us visit for a moment?

GR: These are people that somehow I met. Slowly. What I needed was a strong relationship with each of them. Once I had this hypothetical cast of people then I started shooting. Inside and outside the GRA live 3 million people. In the center of Rome, 250,000 people. This is the Rome of La Grande Bellezza and this is the new Rome. This is the Rome of the urban abusiveness, of corruption. All this land sold by corrupt politicians is made into this area that has no future. The people that live here are survivors. The film is about a few characters. Only seven, eight people. Those eight people had to feel like an archetype.

AKT: The scientist says that the palm tree is the shape of the soul.

Rosi picks up the pen and continues his drawing.

GR: The palm guy is here. There is an airport here.

AKT: You include different modes of transportation, airplanes, the boat, horses, and more than anything else, the ambulance. The light connects the episodes.

Prostitute in Sacro GRA: "She's an hermaphrodite. She told me she was."
Prostitute in Sacro GRA: "She's an hermaphrodite. She told me she was."

GR: The light is a character. Any story with a different kind of light would be a different story. Every story had a certain light. That's why I was waiting for days before shooting.

AKT: There is a shot of an empty playground, a square with nothing much to see. And you capture this stunningly beautiful Roman light. That's where the woman from Rotterdam could fill in her own Great Beauty images. It's the same light. The light connects both sides of Rome's ring.

GR: Light definitely is a protagonist. That's why I shoot by myself. I sometimes wait for days, months before shooting. It's very precise.

AKT: The man who lives in the high-rise with his daughter in one room, quoting Lawrence Durrell…

GR: The nobleman. He's a real noble. Decadent. He lost everything.

AKT: You give us no background.

We don't know their names and have to trust what we see and what they tell us themselves. Rosi counters our interconnected world's tendency to spy and check up on people instead of paying attention in their presence.

GR: I never give any background. It's giving a lot of space to the audience to imagine things. I like this interaction.

AKT: The audience has to make up their own stories.

GR: You have to have your own associations. It doesn't matter if he is a nobleman. I could have made a film out of every one of them.

AKT: Were you ever considering this?

GR: No, it had to be a choral film.

Castle owner in Sacro GRA represented in Rosi's drawing: "Here there is a castle with all these little houses around."
Castle owner in Sacro GRA represented in Rosi's drawing: "Here there is a castle with all these little houses around."

AKT: Your film never feels as pessimistic as, for example, the films of Ulrich Seidl can be.

Compared to Seidl, whose slices of quotidian Austrian lives on the margins and in the hearts, churches, and homes make you shiver to understand, Rosi's panorama manages to circle back, making you love humanity.

We continue to move north and talk about Sacro GRA's reception in Germany.

GR: In Germany, the film was not appreciated much. All over Europe I had the worst reviews in Germany. One German critic in Venice gave it a very bad review [Sacro GRA won the Golden Lion for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival]. Everything that for him was negative was what I wanted to achieve. He said there was no story. Oh thank you, I didn't know there was no story! If you look for a plot, you'll be disappointed.

AKT: The spectator makes the plot. Your film is surprisingly optimistic.

GR: It's optimistic because it's about people who don't complain, which I love. In Italy everybody complains about everything. [The people in the film] have a way of seeing life in a completely different way. A poetic language, the way they talk, the way they interact.

AKT: The prostitute is singing a lullaby about loving to give birth.

Two prostitutes casually putting on make-up while having a picnic of cheese at a rest stop in their camper, conjure up images from Fellini films.

GR: She's an hermaphrodite. She told me she was.

AKT: You like humanity a little more after watching your film.

GR: It's anthropological resistance. For most people this is a place of lost identity.

AKT: Did it ever have identity before?

GR: Somehow with these people there is a strong relationship with their past. The old actor, the nobility, love for the mother of the ambulance guy. It's hard to find this language. That's why there's a distance to those who don't share the past.

By not giving us the past of the people, Gianfranco Rosi goes counter something fundamental and fairly new in our society today - the constant availability of information. "When someone tells me they googled me, I hate that," Rosi said before dashing off to introduce his screening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

2014 Open Roads: New Italian Cinema runs from June 5 - 12, organized by The Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York, in partnership with Istituto Luce-Cinecittà, and with the support of the Italian Cultural Institute of New York, the Italian Trade Commission, Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò at NYU and ACP Group.

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