Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen were already two months into doing their due diligence on their latest documentary “Spettacolo,” relocating to the Tuscan countryside and embedding themselves into the tight-knit community when they hit the mother lode. The married filmmakers behind one of this decade’s most enchanting films, “Marwencol,” in which they invited us into the life of Mark Hogencamp, a man who loses himself in the fantasies of his World War II miniature collection after surviving a brutal beating, had once again stumbled onto a world unto itself within ours during their travels in the small Italian village of Monticciello, where the locals put on an annual play reflecting their hopes and anxieties, in effect capturing the moment for posterity and allowing them to process the year that was and their future ahead. Only Malmberg and Shellen discovered the town’s denizens were far less interested in looking back as they were, casually mentioning an archive of all their productions as if it were a pile of old newspapers collecting dust in the corner.
“It’s funny because you’d think they’d be so proud of this theater, but for a lot of them, it’s just something their grandparents did, their parents did and they did and their kids are going to do, so they don’t really think of it in the same way that I do,” says Malmberg. “It’s just part of living in Monticciello, to be in this theater. It’s like a responsibility almost. So the archive that they had, [whereas] most people would be very protective of it or show it off, it was a couple of months before someone said, “Oh, you know we’ve taken photos of all these things. Do you want to come see those?” When they let me into this room, there were all of these photos that they had taken over the years and basically, their whole psychological life over the last 50 years was sitting there. Of course, who doesn’t want that?”
Still, “Spettacolo” resides firmly in the moment, with Malmberg and Shellen once again working their magic to convey the way in which people can step outside themselves through artistic expression to understand their lives. Led by a vivacious director named Andrea whose passion for the show runs so deep it would seem to run out of his body like an electrical current to his frizzy hair, the denizens of Monticcielo are shown putting considerable consideration into every aspect of the production over the course of a year, from raucous meetings where arguments commence about the general themes of the play to the fine needlepoint of the costumes and the intricate handiwork behind the sets. However, even as the filmmakers create a truly transporting experience by burrowing so deeply into Monticciello, the outside world can’t help but rear its ugly head as existential threats brought on by just how special a place it is, making it catnip to developers, threaten the town’s way of life, though it makes for strong drama on stage.
After premiering earlier this year at SXSW, the film begins its theatrical run in New York this week at the Quad Cinema, and we spoke to Malmberg about the near-decade gestation of “Spettacolo,” honoring a true communal event where no one is meant to stand out, and capturing the beauty of the Italian village without “making it a postcard.”
Is it true you were actually in the middle of “Marwencol” when you first went to Monticciello?
Yeah, the seeds were planted [in the] summer of ’08 when [Chris and I] wandered into that town. We happened to go into Andrea’s studio, who we didn’t know from Adam at that point, and he was busy scribbling. I would presume he was writing a script for a play, and I was like, “Man, I wish I had my camera with me. I could totally do a little portrait of this guy. I don’t know who he is or what he’s doing, but he’s totally fascinating.” It’s funny how this stuff works. We saw a flyer or something about the theater and connected the dots, and always had [this idea] in the back of our mind, but we were busy doing “Marwencol” and working with Mark [Hogencamp], so once that movie came out, we took a breath and thought, “What do we want to work on next?” Our first thought was that strange little town and that interesting man, so let’s see if we could make it work.
These films both end up demonstrating the power of art as a therapeutic device. Was there cross-pollination between them?
To me, they’d be a good double feature, [because] Mark’s discovering art in one and Andrea’s trying to continue art, but the town was confused by [what we were attempting initially], like “What do you mean, you want six months with us and to film us every day?” So in order to try to explain it to them and try to get past the language barrier and answer their questions, we had “Marwencol” translated into Italian and showed it at the little indoor theater you see in the film where they rehearse. It was at that point where they finally got what we were trying to do. Also, Mark has given me comments on [“Spettacolo”] and they’re definitely related movies.
That just made me realize – you didn’t speak Italian before going in?
By the time we left, we did because you just can’t help it. [laughs] But that was definitely one of the challenges was to try and get past that language barrier [because] with any documentary, it’s not just the words. It’s what’s under the words. It’s what people can’t really fully say, but it’s what they’re talking around, so to take your native language out of that was a real challenge. Probably it’s something that had we known how hard it was going to be, maybe we would’ve tried it [differently], but you could say that about any documentary, that it’s a lot harder than you think it’s going to be, [and this was] worth it.
Was it happenstance that this particular year was a real turning point for the community or did you have some idea in advance?
I couldn’t tell you why [since] it’s just the year we chose and it did become momentous, as you say, but for different reasons than you suspect. One thing that’s actually interesting about making a doc that I’m starting to realize after two of them is that if you’re lucky, it’s not the story you expect to tell that you end up telling. It’s like you tell that part, but that’s only act one. In this case, here’s this theater that’s beautiful and magical and [the annual play is] this great expression, but on another level, is it going to last? Do people still value it? Those kinds of questions became the questions of that summer and I didn’t know that was what was going to happen.
It’s really beautiful how you use multiple voices, without obvious identification, to reflect the town. How did you come up with that approach?
That [came from] working with them and writing lines with them and casting various voices. If a story was particularly important to someone and it was their favorite, maybe I would cast them [to speak to that], or if they had kind of an ironic voice — [there’s that story about] the shopping carts and that guy’s name is also Andrea and he’s got a very beautiful, ironic kind of voice that cuts [through] that sweet music. Chris and I tried, as much as we could, to mimic their process, so we would come to them with scenes and say, “What do you think of this?” And they would perform it for us, watch it and [we’d] go back and forth with it. Instead of having one voice, like Andrea voicing the whole thing, we thought it was more in the spirit of their theater to have different voices at different times.
You really do follow the entire community and not just Andrea. Did that make this more challenging?
That was definitely one of their requests, that it wasn’t just Andrea, and I think you can see Andrea in as the center of the wheel and the person that’s the biggest believer in it, but it’s a communal event. They all do it together. They all contribute, so you’ve got to understand the whole town, not just Andrea. Andrea is a fascinating person and I enjoyed every moment I got to spend with him. He was very giving in showing me his process and being open, but your job is to show 50 people, not just one and to make a portrait of a whole community.
What was it like to visually convey this place? You create these wonderful still images in the film that really set the scene.
Well, it’s Tuscany, right? So our first exposure to it was sunflowers and hay bales, and when you think of Tuscany, especially as an American, you think of those things and cheese and wine, but he way you think of it as a tourist is not the way they think of it. So our first directorial decision that my wife and I made was to live in the center of town for six months so that you could properly place all those images. When the sunflowers and hay bales come up in the film, they’re at the right time because it’s more about what those sunflowers and hay bales mean to the people of the town, not the tourists who come visit, so you get to experience what it would be like to be there. Pictorially, it’s a 14th century hill town and I felt like my job was not to pretty it up, but honor that it was beautiful. I remember when Andrea first saw the film, he said, “Oh, thank you for not making it all look like a postcard,” and I was glad that he felt that way because I think you can fall into that trap there. It is all gorgeous, so you’ve got to pick your spots, and I had that clock of winter, spring, summer and fall.
You also structure the film in such a way where you can feel the the gradual weight of history bearing down on the community, which makes a contemporary pivot for them that much harder. Was it difficult to reflect that?
Definitely. I felt there were several clocks going on when I started to figure out the structure of it because there’s winter, spring, summer and fall and then also the natural progression of their theater and what happens to it, and what has happened to it and what has happened to them. Luckily, the progression of the year matched the progression of their history, so my hope is that those things, without people being too aware of it, are working together.
The film largely exists inside this community, but as far as the existential threat of gentrification as well as other concerns the community has that are reflective of the larger world, did what’s happening on the outside shape the film in any way as you were putting this together?
No. It’s almost like our life has kind of caught up with theirs in a sense. I remember in that first [communal] meeting [about picking the subject for the play] when one of the women pipes up about basically [asking] is democracy still democracy? And the barbarism of modernity. I remember showing this to people here a couple of years ago when I first cut the scene and people laughed. Now, people do not laugh on that line. [because] I think they know exactly what she’s talking about. So in a way, you hear from it other people in the film [that] Andrea’s vision is quite often very prophetic and he can pick up on what’s going on [about] this crony capitalism monster that we’re all afraid is going to eat us all. Unfortunately, it resonates strongly now, and I don’t know what we do about it, but as he says in the play, it’s our job to be aware of it and to speak and not just stare at it, and it’s interesting that they chose that subject for the one time they knew they were speaking to the world through this documentary.
“Spettacolo” opens on September 6th in New York at the Quad Cinema and September 29th in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall and Monica Film Center. A full schedule of cities and dates is here.