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A year after Claire Simon contemplated Paris’ Gare du Nord as a convergence point for the underclass, another European railway-terminus documentary now arrives in the shape of Bartolomeo Pampaloni‘s feature-length directorial debut. But Roma Termini is a very different creature than Human Geography: unlike Simon, a trained ethnologist, the Italian director – who is actually based in the French capital – is not exactly location-specific or reflective enough about population flows in modern Europe.
The predicaments of the down-and-outers at the center of the film, though portrayed very vividly and sympathetically, are neither placed within the context of the train station as a focus for the banished human flotsam in the Italian capital, nor are they portrayed as representative of the social schisms raging within Rome or Italy in general. The movie’s rapturous welcome at the city’s film festival – where an industry-led jury also awarded it a “special mention” title in the documentary category – could lead to some traction in the country, but bookings beyond Italy seem unlikely.
Among the many ramblers who now sees Roma Termini as their home, Pampaloni zeroes in on four: Antonio Allegra, a man who has ended up in the station after leaving his wife, children and parents in Sicily more than a decade ago; Gianluca Masala, a well-groomed Sardinian whose pride has led to him struggling to keep afloat as a penniless straggler; Stefano Pili, a seemingly mentally unwell motormouth playing Pampaloni’s jester guide, as he blabbers about the fantasy evoked by advertisements and reads out the outrageous gift demands (bigger genitals, bombs for Afghanistan and so on) hung on the station’s Christmas tree; and the wheelchair-bound Angelo Scarpa, the tragic figure of the piece as he angrily denounces the injustice he has been subjected to.
Their suffering certainly comes across as awful and authentic, and Pampaloni has heightened the angst by frequently placing his subjects in close-up. It’s a gesture that forces the viewer to confront the sorry truth, but also a move which somehow strips Roma Termini of any engagement with the whirl of ongoing social circumstances.
As these individual stories take over, the terminus – as a setting, or as the symbol of all those dashed hopes and dead-end lives – gradually fades into the background. Without Pampaloni’s frequent flashing of Termini’s façade on screen, or the sporadic scenes of the station closing down in the late hours and sleeping ramblers lining the building, the viewer could easily forget what the film’s starting point is in the first place.
Pushing the sentimentalist approach to the brim, Pampaloni ends on a heartwarming note as one of the subjects eventually ends his self-exile and returns home. It’s an incredible denouement given how he – and most of his fellow station sleepers, in fact – seems bound to misery inflicted by others or themselves. Then again, it’s a move which highlights Roma Termini‘s role more as a crowd-pleaser – something strangely akin to a plotted-out fictional film – than a cerebral exploration into 21st-century city life and its globalized discontents.
Venue: Rome Film Festival (Prospettive Italia)
Production company: Albamada Films
Director: Bartolomeo Pampaloni
Producers: Bartolomeo Pampaloni in collaboration with Edmée Millot, Andrea Ricciardi
Director of photography: Bartolomeo Pampaloni
Editors: Elliott Maintigneux
Music: Zeno Gabaglio
No rating; 78 minutes
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