Wednesday 12 August 2020

On demand: "Sacro GRA"

On a basic level, a thing about a ring road. There are precedents for the Italian documentarist Gianfranco Rosi's study of the Grande Raccordo Anulare, the vast circular that surrounds and feeds into the city of Rome - Iain Sinclair's work on and around London's M25 springs to mind - but Sacro GRA finally insists on going its own way, following both a scenic and philosophically worthwhile route. (In so doing, it became the first documentary to win the Venice Golden Lion, back in 2013.) Rosi's thesis, not so improbable, is that all human life is here or hereabouts. Some of it is urgent: the film opens with an old man being rushed to hospital in the back of an ambulance. As Rosi potters further out into the Roman sticks, however, that life becomes more relaxed and varied, marginal, obscure. A man drills holes in trees to ascertain the level of insect activity. An eel catcher sets off on his daily rounds. A pair of veteran prostitutes compare notes on the cheese in their sandwiches. One of my favourite TV shows growing up - of which there remains next to no trace on your modern Internet - was Channel 4's As It Happens, which dispatched a camera crew to a different location every day, went live for an hour at lunchtime, and set the presenter (which, if memory serves, included such droll observers of human life as John Peel and Andy Kershaw) to interviewing whosoever happened to pass. Sacro GRA serves as further proof you could set your camera up in any one spot on the planet, circle around a bit, and find something - a person, a place, a possession - worth marvelling at. This world is never quite as boring as it seems on its longest and greyest afternoons.

The key to sustaining that level of fascination may lie in that circularity: you have to keep the camera running until you stumble across something of note. Rosi constructs a setpiece out of a solar eclipse seized upon by the more fervent Romans as a godly miracle, but for most of Sacro GRA, he can be found turning back to his chosen subjects, caught at different phases of the day. We check in with the eel man as he casts off in the hours before dawn; night finds Rosi tailing a couple of glamour girls employed to dance on the counters of a local bar while wearing insanely high heels. (The sequence prompts two thoughts: one, that from a health-and-safety perspective, this doesn't look terribly safe, and two, that however many horndogs these gyrations tempt in off the street, the girls seem to be getting in everybody's way.) Peering in through the windows of an adjacent apartment block doesn't yield all that much, save an underlining of the idea very different people now occupy the same space (oh, and a passing, cherishable diss of Ryanair - "those bunglers" - I'd be loath to lose): this material is where Sacro GRA has its closest border to the humdrum everyday. Yet setting his camera to trailing that ambulance allows Rosi to access regular bursts of adrenaline whenever matters threaten to become too becalmed - and to hint that the circle of life ends where it begins, with nothingness. Eventually, the film spirals so far out of the hustle and bustle of the city that it winds up in a graveyard; as the camera peers down onto coffins being dug up and repositioned to make way for new arrivals, we're confronted with the fact that, at the end of the day, nobody escapes the void.

For now, though, all that is ahead of us. Look long enough at what you've been lucky enough to be born into, Rosi urges, and you'll start to notice life within life, worlds within worlds. The hookers, looking on at Italian society from the side of the GRA (and thereby giving new meaning to the term lay-by), shrug "the rich get richer, while the poor stay poor". Their scenes sometimes rub up against footage Rosi shot in a castle that gets rented out for photoshoots by an aristocrat who spends his afternoons puffing on a cigar and playing patience on his computer. Rosi is just as comfortable here, among the gold fixtures, silver Rolls Royces and leopard-skin armchairs of the well-to-do, as he is around those truckstops, watching good-time gals haggle with potential johns for a few Euros more. These people are so close - they might well be inhabiting the same postcode, for all we know - and yet they move in entirely different, perhaps concentric circles, some of which permit a greater mobility than others. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that Rosi should have graduated from this to making Fire at Sea, his 2016 film about migrants in the Mediterranean: that project expanded this frame of vision, giving it an explicitly political dimension, but it emerged from the exact same humanitarian standpoint - that often the best thing a filmmaker can do is look out for people, and that the best thing we can do as citizens is take other people as they come. It's in its formative stages, but the Rosi filmography is shaping up as a valuable, ever more timely lesson in how to watch without prejudice.

Sacro GRA is now streaming as part of the MUBI library.

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