The Italian surveillance job

a/Arts & Entertainment/Film and TV by

Gianfranco Rosi’s panoramic portrait of the working communities connected by Rome’s Grande Raccordo Anulare (GRA) highway hews closely to broad-brush expectations of what one might find in the region: a man chews a cigar in the golden bathtub of a palatial home, a fisherman trawls for eels at dawn, and women tear at paper-wrapped ham and talk mozzarella in the cab of a truck.

The winner of the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice festival—the first year in which documentaries were eligible for the competition’s prize—Sacro GRA, Rosi’s measured, peripatetic film, chronicles a two year period spent encircling the city’s outer limits; it is embroiled in the daily life of paramedics, dancers, and scientists. The filmmakers remain invisible throughout, affixing cameras to dashboards, training lenses on apartment windows, and tracking the action of their subjects from a distance. Stories of the film’s production report the whittling of a much greater pool of footage, the filmmakers’ omnipresence perhaps explaining the relaxed, unaffected demeanour of its protagonists. However, Sacro GRA only intermittently succeeds in transcending its portrayals of the workers on screen, the majority of the film representing little beyond the scope of their professional roles.

Rosi’s muted, unobtrusive urban ethnography is akin to recent documentaries like Alma Har’el’s Bombay Beach, faithfully recording the activity of a subculture for those outside it, often reinforcing stereotypes without critique, as with the display of a cigar smoker’s gauchely opulent interior decor, showcased for the audience with a sardonic eye.

What the film offers most valuably is simply access: to the weary working day of the ambulanza medic, returning home to eat pasta in the glow of Skype conversation with loved ones; or to the private moments of two dancers, dressing for and unwinding after an evening twirling on countertops at a small-town bar. The context of the film remains set, its subjects constrained to a distant reality rather than allowed to echo beyond it, but within these limits we are afforded a glimpse into what we otherwise might not see. We observe the quiescence of an elderly couple, together in the kitchen, reading aloud and sharing melon across a lemon-patterned tablecloth, or the piercing, watchful gaze of a sex worker aside the highway, signalling at unceasing traffic.

Sacro GRA affords the viewer transport to a destination separate from the nearby tourist hub to which visitors flock, bypassing the local sights to instead communicate the feel of life inside its partially occupied modern housing developments, and out onto its sparsely populated, twilit streets. While the characters of Rosi’s film may not follow you from the cinema, they exist relatively vividly for its 90 minute runtime, gesticulating and communicating. They are the varied participants of a day spent elsewhere, reachable by taking the second exit on the way to Rome, or else available for the price of cinema admission.

Sacro GRA plays again at 3 p.m. on Tuesday Oct. 16 at Cinema Cineplex Odéon Quartier Latin, as part of the Nouveau Cinema festival, which continues until October 20.