'Constitution' ('Dustur') ('Costituzione'): Cinema du Reel Review

Dustur still- H 2016
Courtesy of Cinéma du Réel
Who knew a discussion of laws could be so fascinating?

Marco Santarelli's documentary looks at a group of Muslim detainees in Bologna, Italy, who discuss liberty and laws as they prepare to draw up their own ideal constitution.

About a dozen Muslim detainees in an Italian prison explore and discuss constitutional law in Marco Santarelli’s fascinating non-fiction feature Constitution (Dustur/Costituzione). Through discussions about the importance of laws in society and ideas that would lead to a better and more ideal world, the film offers a fascinating glimpse into the complex multicultural realities of contemporary Europe, where secularism — or at least the fact that the constitution of Italy, despite being home to the Vatican, is technically an entirely secular one — and religious (mostly Islamic) ideas and experiences are present side by side and a workable entente needs to be found. Shot over eight months in a low-key and low-fi manner in the Dozza prison in Bologna, this conversation starter can look forward to a healthy festival life after premieres in Turin and Paris, where it had its international premiere at the Cinema du Reel documentary festival.

Santarelli’s previous film, the Rotterdam-selected Lettera al presidente, was made with a slightly larger crew that included a co-writer, a cinematographer and a composer. Here, Santarelli is practically a one-man filmmaking team, having directed, written, shot and edited the film himself. (Since most of Constitution was shot inside Dozza’s not-exactly-large prison library, it is very possible that the director was told only one person could come in to record the sessions.) That said, both of the director’s films seem interested in the intersection of (the) written word(s) and lawmaking, with Presidente about mail written by the first Italian postwar generation to their president and his latest also zooming in texts normally dealt with by lawmakers that reflect the hopes, dreams and necessities for their and their society’s well-being.

Organizer Ignazio is a bespectacled, mild-mannered and middle-aged intellectual, who works with a mediator, Yassine, who speaks Arabic more fluently and is more at home in the various dialects and some of the cultural specifics of the Muslim world (not all of the detainees speak decent Italian). Together, they come in once a week to talk to a group of Muslim inmates to talk about the Italian constitution and constitutions from some of their home countries — such as Tunisia, which drafted a new constitution in 2014, in the wake of the Arab Spring — and also about non-national Islamic laws such as the sharia and acts such as takfir, that is, to suggest someone is an apostate or infidel (dustur, the film’s Arabic title, simply means constitution).

In the early going, only Ignazio and Yassine really stand out, though the detainees slowly start to engage with them as various topics are discussed. It is already very illuminating, as Ignazio suggests, to think about what a constitution says or betrays about those who wrote it, what they thought was important and how they saw the world. The Italian one, for example, does not include any direct mention of religion but instead focuses on work, while the Tunisian one does mention Islam but also clearly states the values and importance of moderation and tolerance, as well as the fact that mosques can in no way be used for political gatherings or activity.

Some of the declarations, such as the idea that a “the success of a state is linked to its sense of justice, not its sense of religious attachment,” are clearly provocative for (at least some of) the Muslims, though when the group discusses how ISIS applies “selective justice” and uses propaganda to justify its violence, there is absolutely a sense that these kinds of discussions might be a useful tool against radicalization.

The film’s main protagonist from the inside, so to speak, is Samal, a 26-year-old from Morocco with a perfectly groomed beard who was a drug mule and spent over four years in Dozza, time he used to study. Now out of prison though awaiting official parole, he comes back to talk with the group about his insights into law and liberty and how they connect to him personally and emotionally.

A fascinating and eloquent character, Santarelli thankfully avoids turning him into a facile, one-note poster boy for all imprisoned Muslims in Italy, with some of the issues Samal has no real or unambiguous answer for, such as proselytizing and the acceptance of non-Muslims by Muslims, saved for the film’s second half, after Samal has been introduced. And as could be expected, the film’s most intriguing moments include the session in which Ignazio asks the inmates to come up with the concepts and then the text for their own ideal constitution.

Structurally, the director stays inside the Dozza for most of the film and finally goes outdoors toward the end, to suggest something about Ignazio’s own religious background and his personal connection to the Italian constitution. Clearly, Santarelli wanted to mimic the ideas of being locked away for a long period and then subsequently finding oneself outside again, though the information that this last segment provides also feels like a bit of a shock. Since it puts so much of what Ignazio has said and where he’s coming from in a new light, it feels like this should have been addressed much earlier.  

Production companies: Zivago Media, OttofilmakerIstituto Luce-Cinecittà

Writer-Director: Marco Santarelli

Producer: Rino Sciarretta

Director of photography: Marco Santarelli

Editor: Marco Santarelli

Sales: Istituto Luce-Cinecittà

No rating, 75 minutes