Doc Talk | Peter Keough

Village theatricals; film and fashion; Posner on parade

A still image from Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen’s “Spettacolo.”
A still image from Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen’s “Spettacolo.”Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen

When Shakespeare wrote that all the world’s a stage he was no doubt being metaphorical, but the inhabitants of the tiny Tuscan town of Monticchiello  (population 136 ) take it literally. Since 1967 they have put on an annual production, the “Teatro Povero di Monticchiello ,” in which they portray themselves acting out the issues that most concern them. 

Their 50th production is the subject of the whimsical, eloquent, and bittersweet Spettacolo (Italian for “show” or “performance” ) by Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen, whose “Marwencol” won the Boston Society of Film Critics’ award for best documentary in 2010. Radiantly photographed (some of the shots of the town, interiors, and landscapes look like Italian Renaissance paintings) and subtly edited, it relates the progress of the show. It is a microcosm of the creative process, epitomizing the function of art.

The work begins in winter with a town meeting in which possible topics are discussed (“How about a play in which everyone is talking about what we should do in the play?” “We did that already!”). Given the state of the local economy, the decline of Italy in general, and the apparent collapse of the international order, they unanimously agree that the play should be titled “The End of the World.”

Malmberg and Shellen follow the sometimes-rocky preparations, mostly from the point of view of the long-time director, the sage-like, gray-bearded, and often hard-pressed Andrea Cristi, 75, who in his day job is a painter and illustrator. In between rehearsals, as the townspeople race to meet the summer deadline, the film intercuts stills and clips from past productions, which demonstrate a range of inventiveness and inspiration from neorealism to theater of the absurd.


Those flashbacks include images of the original production, which depicted a near-tragic event during World War II, in which Nazi troops threatened to wipe out the town for aiding partisans. Now Monticchiello’s existence is again threatened as jobs dry up, pensions are precarious, young people leave for the city, and speculators buy up property to sell to rich tourists. “I believe that the future of Monticchiello will be the same as every little village in Tuscany,” says Cresti. “It will be empty in the end and become a vacation town. But there is a fantasy that it will itself become a great theater in which the last inhabitant will become an actor playing himself.”

“Spettacolor” screens on Monday at 7 p.m. as part of the DocYard series at the Brattle Theatre, 40 Brattle St., Cambridge. A question-and-answer session with Malmberg follows.

Take note

After you catch Wim Wenders’s “Wide Angle” Norton Lecture Poetry in Motion on Monday at 2 p.m. at Sanders Theatre, you might also check out the Harvard Film Archive’s screening of his documentary Notebook on Cities and Clothes (1989) at 7 p.m. 

It’s a deceptively free-form meditation on the title topics, which grew out of Wenders’s commission by the Centre Pompidou to make a movie about a subject he didn’t have a particular interest in — fashion. That is until he buys a shirt and jacket designed by Yohji Yamamoto, and it sets his mind on a train of thought that leads him to Tokyowhere he shoots Yamamoto preparing his newest show, and then Paris, where Yamamoto’s show takes place. 

But most of the film inhabits the probing, free-associative imagination of the filmmaker as he ponders the images he records, reflects on the nature of art, muses about the poetics of place, speculates about the similarities and differences between cinema and haute couture, and shares his thoughts with the like-minded and affable Yamamoto.


For the Norton Lecture “Poetry in Motion” go to mahindrahumanities.fas.harvard.edu/content/norton-lectures .

For “Notebook on Cities and Clothes” go to hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/films/2018marmay/wenders.html#notebook.

Documentaries on the edge

In the program Aestheticized Portraiture: Fifty Years of Films by Bruce Posner, 1968-2018 , you can glimpse influences from filmmakers like Stan Brakhage, Alfred Guzzetti, Martin Arnold, and Jay Rosenblatt. But Posner’s whimsical, anarchic, eerily hypnotic works are otherwise unique in their style, sensibility, and goofy humor. 

Posner describes Inhabitants (2017) as “a digital meditation on the parade through 2017 mostly shot in a three-mile radius around Hanover, N.H.” It puts mundane slices of life through a blender, transcending the conventions of the documentary genre and tapping into the enigma of subjective experience. Perhaps that is how history will remember 2017 as well.

“Orgasamatic (1983-2015) is a pulsing palimpsest of images from odd, eclectic, and personal sources set to an uncanny soundtrack; it is immersive, hypnotic, and potentially hallucinatory.

AO804.1” (1976-2017) makes up for brevity (11 minutes) with multiple split-screens — 12 in all — presenting images, according to Posner, from “the summer of 1976 (as opposed to the summer of love) just drifting around Miami.” It looks like a bank of security monitors run amok. Many will recall the summer of 1976 in the same way.

There are three split screens in Mona Lisa Smiles (Again and Again)” (1975-2015) presenting a near-subliminal flux of fragmentary images, including video of Posner’s newborn daughter, clips from the biopic “The Will Rogers Story” (1952), bits of Posner’s animation work, discarded scraps of film found on the projectionist’s floor in theaters at which he’s worked — in short, as Posner says, “most of my filmmaking career and adult life.”

“Aestheticized Portraiture: Fifty Years of Films by Bruce Posner, 1968-2018” screens on Wednesday at 8 p.m. at MassArt Film Society, Screening Room 1, East Hall, 621 Huntington Ave., Boston.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.