Natural Resistance: Berlin Review

A loosely structured doc set in Italy is a little all over the place, but very simpatico.

American expat filmmaker Jonathan Nossiter returns to the vineyards to champion natural wine-making.

Jonathan Nossiter’s seminal 2004 exposé of the merchandizing and standardization of the French wine industry, Mondovino, held out little hope for a saner tomorrow.  Ten years later, Natural Resistance offers wine-drinkers a glimmer of something better happening. He interviews small Italian wine-growers who doggedly refuse to treat their grapes with chemicals and pesticides or alter them in the keg, though paradoxically their natural methods are often at loggerheads with local and European directives. It’s a timely topic shot around picnic tables with friends and tramping through vineyards from Tuscany to Piedmont, as thought-provoking as it is informal. Loosely structured but shorter than the sprawling Mondovino, the Rezo release may have an easier time finding playdates in specialized venues.

Illustrating its cross-over potential, it played in two different sections of the Berlin Film Festival, Culinary Cinema and Panorama.

No one in society is freer than a farmer and thus as dangerous, states a rebellious wine-grower as he shows the camera the difference between soil where pesticides have been used and untreated soil in the adjacent field. Beyond the rolling hills around Chianti rise the stately vacation homes of Sting and Robert Zemeckis, but the estates Nossiter visits are working farms brimming with families and kids, dogs and cats, goats and what-not. The simple, casual-feeling DV camerawork by Paula Prandini and Nossiter feels right at home here.

The film’s originality lies in its odd but pleasant melding of wine-making and film-making. With the help of his onscreen guest Gian Luca Farinelli, director of the Bologna cinematheque, Nossiter inserts clips from silent comedies like The Gold Rush and Broken China, drawing a broad parallel between film restoration and wine culture. But there's room for Chiara Rapaccini’s delightful cartoon spoof on city slickers who go to the country and a rather startling b&w newsreel by Mario Soldati and Cesare Zavattini (music composed by Nino Rota) investigating literacy among Italian farm folk in 1960. Some of these inserts are so tangential to the film’s subject, they look like they were chosen late at night after a lot of wine tasting, but they break up the monotony of talking people and lighten the atmosphere.

The same goes for W.H. Auden’s poem about Icarus falling from the sky, Musee des Beaux Arts, read in its entirety at the beginning of the film. Connecting it to wine-making is a challenge, though it was Auden who said poetry’s purpose is to “disenchant and disintoxicate” by telling the truth. Certainly Natural Resistance wants to be seen as a truth-telling doc about the precarious conditions under which a small group of courageous farmers are working on family vineyards that go against commercialization and globalization, while the world looks elsewhere and pays no attention to their plight.

A former sommelier, Nossiter is the author of the book Liquid Memory (published in France as Taste & Power) and a caped crusader against the cliquey, overpriced wine industry. The film sings the praises of small Italian wine-growers who spend their lives searching for the je-ne-sais-quoi of something they call terroir, the historical sense of place that makes each wine unique unto itself. Stefano Bellotti, the most militant and angry of those interviewed (who include Corrado Dottori, Giovanna Tiezzi and Elena Pantaleoni) makes a strong case for agricultural history as social history, pointing out that in Italy, 66 percent of the population worked on farms after the war, while today the figure is 3 percent.

What most viewers will take away from the film is the urgent need to support the wine resistance and buy organic. Legislators seem to have other ideas, though.  The DOC label, originally a guarantee of quality when it was instituted in 1968, has unpleasantly morphed into a convenient way to convince customers of a best buy at the supermarket. Meanwhile, the film's heroes sadly admit having lost their DOC status on trivial, bureaucratic grounds.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Doc, Culinary Cinema),  Feb. 8, 2014.
Production companies: Les Films du Rat, Goatworks Films, Prodigy
Director: Jonathan Nossiter
Screenwriter: Jonathan Nossiter
Producers: Jonathan Nossiter, Santiago Amigorena, Giacomo Claudio Rossi, Paula Prandini
Director of photography: Paula Prandini, Jonathan Nossiter
Editor: Jonathan Nossiter
Sales Agent: Rezo Films
No rating, 85 minutes.