'The Devil's Soup' ('La Zuppa del Demonio'): Venice Review

Courtesy of Biennale di Venezia
Choice archive footage and excellent editing make for a strong if familiar argument

Writer-director Davide Ferrario's documentary uses archive footage to explore the idea of industrial progress in 20th century Italy

VENICE -- Italy’s industrial miracles of the twentieth century are explored in The Devil’s Soup (La Zuppa del Demonio), a documentary by director Davide Ferrario that combines an impressive range of archive footage, some of it shot by famous Italian directors such as Ermanno Olmi and Dino Risi, and snippets of literary texts from the time, from poets and writers such as Dino Buzzati, Italo Calvino, Primo Levi and Pier Paolo Pasolini, often to thought-provoking effect. Though too Italy-centric to have much of a future as a theatrical item elsewhere, this out-of-competition Venice title should nonetheless appeal to documentary events, broadcasters and, given the names involved, perhaps a cinematheque or two.

Ferrario, who’s directed fiction films such as Guardami and After Midnight, here returns to the modus operandi of his popular, six-part, 1992 documentary series American Supermarket, which was entirely composed of U.S. educational films, commercials and documentary material from the forties and the fifties. Like in his later documentaries Levi’s Journey and Piazza Garibaldi, what’s interesting about Ferrario’s approach is that he edits the archive footage together with the intention of letting the original material speak for itself, even though, through careful editing and the use of music, he manages to suggest how the simple passage of time has pushed us to interpret the original material differently.

The Devil’s Soup, a term coined by Buzzati in a 1964 non-fiction film about a blast furnace that Ferrario has re-appropriated here to describe the mess industrialization has caused, also follows this general idea as it investigates “the idea of progress in the 1900s,” as expressed through the growing industrialization of Italian society in the twentieth century. It’s the century of industrialization and of cinema, Ferrario duly notes, pointing out that the first ever film showed workers leaving a factory.

At the start of the film, enormous olive trees of over a century old are uprooted and destroyed to make way for a steel factory. “Steel is life,” intones the chirpy vintage voiceover, before Ferrario cuts to a shot of the same steel factory now, entirely abandoned (it’s one of the film’s few contemporary shots). With today’s respect for the environment, there would likely have been protests or at least an attempt to move the trees elsewhere. Last century, they simply had to make room for progress, which seemed unstoppable.

Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti seemed to think as much all the way back in 1915, when he almost prophetically wrote: “Have faith in progress, which is always right, even when it’s wrong because it is the movement, the life, the struggle, the hope,” which is heard in voice-over in the film. To today’s ears, his "wrong" has left much of progress’s life and hope by the wayside, leaving us only with its resulting struggles.

The film shows how Fascist Italy was an important motor for further industrialization, as Il Duce inaugurates the country’s greatest Fiat factory or the generators for Milan’s electricity grid, which had been built "with Fascist speed." In the 1950s and 1960s, industrial expansion seemed like an answer to post-war poverty and a way of integrating everyone socially, since a job meant "being proud of being part of a company and of a nation that is transforming history."

Entire towns that sprung up or greatly expanded because of the presence of huge factories, such as in Turin, the home of Fiat, and Ivrea, where Olivetti was based, show how industrial progress influenced all aspects of life, including how and where people lived. Work "turned laziness into eagerness, chaos into order," runs a voiceover based on a text by Ermanno Rea, which continues to explain that in Naples, a city of pollution and irregularities, it introduced "unusual values: solidarity, pride (…), a work ethic, the sense of legality. We believed in something, we believed in the factory." Similar socially cohesive effects can be gleaned from footage shot by a young Ermanno Olmi, who documented the construction of a dam that provided work for hundreds. 

Ferrario and his editor, Cristina Sardo, convincingly sketch how the arrival of progress was initially a boon for Italian society, changing the country’s landscapes and social fabrics alike but how, by the 1960s, things started to change, until the oil crisis in the early 1970s finally ended the dream of unfettered progress. Pasolini’s famous lament for the disappearance of fireflies, from 1975 but about the early 1960s, is quoted extensively and to sobering effect and is cunningly placed after a shockingly upbeat report about how Fiat donated hundreds of used cars that were dumped in the Mediterranean to create an artificial reef that would "benefit" marine life.

The film’s general points are of course nothing new but there’s some choice archive footage here and the combination with literary texts is both effective and occasionally poetic. It also rather depressingly suggests how some of the brightest minds of the country were just as in thrall of the promises of progress as the rest of the population. 

Production companies: Rosso Fuoco, Rai Cinema

Director: Davide Ferrario

Screenplay: Davide Ferrarrio, Giorgio Mastrorocco, based on an idea by Sergio Toffetti

Producers: Davide Ferrario, Francesca Bocca, Ladis Zanini

Editor: Cristina Sardo

Music: Fabio Barovero

 

No rating, 78 minutes

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