A scene in Monticciello in "Spettacolo"

SXSW ’17 Review: The Play is Truly the Thing in Jeff Malmberg & Chris Shellen’s Breathtaking “Spettacolo”

When the fog lifts on Monticciello in the opening scenes of “Spettacolo,” planning can begin on the annual tradition in the small town in Tuscany where the community comes together to stage a play for the summer. Each year, they start from scratch, and Andrea, the gentle director who guides the progress of the show looks not to what’s happening on stage to know if it’s coming to fruition, but rather to a grove of fennel that springs up by the side of the road every winter into full blossom by June. While the stagecraft hearkens back to the days of Shakespeare, the subject of the play performed does not – each year, this production that encompasses the entire community is used to reflect on the year that was and the future ahead, dramatizing the experience of the town in order to make sense of it.

This agrarian-artist enclave is naturally fertile territory for Jeff Malmberg, who previously directed the extraordinary profile “Marwencol,” and his co-director Chris Shellen. Tracking the course of one of these plays over the course of conception to completion, the film builds off the same idea that made Malmberg’s previous film so compelling – demonstrating how creativity can unlock a comprehension of reality that can’t be achieved otherwise, stunningly realized in how artfully conveyed it is by the filmmakers. But in expanding the perspective from one individual to an entire town, “Spettacolo” is pulled in a different direction, showing how in the communal act of creation, the process is just as enriching and educational for these neighbors as performing the act itself. Shrewdly, the film declines to include introductory name cards, though by the end you’ll know them anyway, and enlists voiceovers from various embers of the community to chronicle the history of Monticciello and how this theatrical tradition came to be, their recollections tinged with opinions that might not be necessarily shared with the next person who speaks.

As if the unusual nature of Monticciello’s summer show weren’t intriguing enough, the filmmakers arrive for a particularly momentous year in which the “end of the world” theme decided on by the town seems particularly apt. The community is greeted every morning with newspaper headlines blaring one bit of bad news after another and various unexpected tragedies that strike at the heart of the actual production. After producing decades of shows without fail, Andrea can no longer say “The show must go on” with complete authority, and while the camera never ventures beyond Monticciello in “Spettacolo,” the anxiety created by the economic and social changes in the outside world can be heard in the voices of the residents and amplified by the skillful way Malmberg and Shellen gradually layer in the past to put the present into context. Then again, the issues raised by the redistribution of wealth and by extension, land development, may already feel eerily familiar to many walking into the film no matter where in the world they live.

While it’s increasingly saddening in “Spettacolo” to consider that a place as unique as this tight-knit community isn’t immune to such concerns, to see the amateur dramatists forge ahead is equally if not more invigorating. It isn’t their passion for performing annually that’s infectious so much as their unquenchable desire to understand each other, a curiosity shared by the filmmakers who give great dignity to people grappling with where they fit into the world. In locating such a grand undertaking in one of the most beautiful places on earth, Malmberg and Shellen find something even more magnificent than the scenery in the purveyors of the “Poor Theater,” as the locals call it due to the need to reuse their sets every year, who are rich in so many other respects.

“Spettacolo” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play at SXSW on March 11th at the 6:45 pm at the Alamo Ritz 1, March 13th at the Alamo Lamar at 2:45 pm and on March 17th at the Stateside Theatre at 11:15 am.

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