Parabeton: Berlin Film Review

Parabeton Berlin Film Still - H 2012
Austere but illuminating documentary on Italian architecture casts a steadily entrancing spell.

The film is the latest in an ongoing series of exquisite architecture documentaries by German veteran Heinz Emigholz.

A film without dialogue that manages to speak with eloquence and even wit, Parabeton is the latest in an ongoing series of exquisite architecture documentaries by German veteran Heinz Emigholz. Somewhat more accessible than most of his output in that a gorgeously sun-baked Rome is the setting -- the Eternal City's celebrated ancient buildings are examined alongside their modern neighbors -- it's ideal rarefied fare for the more discerning highbrow film-festivals and arts-oriented TV channels.

A world-acknowledged master of reinforced concrete, Pier Luigi Nervi (1891-1979) was responsible for a handful of buildings outside Italy - including Manhattan's George Washington Bridge Bus Station and St. Mary's cathedral in San Francisco -- but the bulk of his creations are to be found in his native land. Parabeton is a decidedly upmarket kind of travelogue that visits 17 Nervi structures with a particular emphasis on Rome, locations and dates noted via simple intertitles.

Emigholz's tripod-mounted digital camera captures the buildings' exteriors and interiors in shots -- seldom more than thirty seconds long -- which indicate the geographical context, concentrate on specific details or convey a general impression of how Nervi's soaring, triangle-based concrete designs played with and defined space. The sound-team of Markus Ruff, Christian Obermaier and Stephan Konken deserve special mention for conveying mood through the clarity of their audio-recordings.

Some of these buildings remain in constant use and are in excellent condition -- especially sports-centers such as the domed PalaLotto, a masterpiece of design which Emigholz wisely treats to extended contemplation. Others have fallen into decay, most notably the cavernous "Palace of Labor" in Turin, whose pigeon-friendly dilapidation speaks to changing priorities in post-WWII Italy.

As well as these sly bread-and-circuses contrasts, Parabeton also clearly makes an implicit case that Nervi -- despite reinforced concrete having long since gone out of fashion -- is a major figure whose structures deserve both appreciation and upkeep. That they withstand juxtaposition with classics of world architecture -- such as Rome's bustling Pantheon, here presented in eerily depopulated silence - is testament to how Nervi's creations have stood the test of time.  ?

Of course, much of the Roman architecture, which often deployed a 'liquid rock' form of what we now know as concrete, is centuries and even millennia old rather than decades. Focusing on eight sites, Emigholz silently conducts us through areas long-trodden by countless millions of tourists (such as the Forum and Colosseum), and more out-of-the-way spots, allowing considerable scope for rumination and reflection. Regarding that tricky interplay of ancient and modern, Emigholz provides the materials and the intellectual framework -- what we make of it all is then entirely up to us.

For the record, the film is subtitled Pier Luigi Nervi and Roman Concrete (Pier Luigi Nervi und römischer Beton), and is numbered as the nineteenth in avant-garde veteran Emigholz's ongoing Photography and Beyond series -- as well as the first in a new investigation, Decampment of Modernism. But even for those with no knowledge of the director's grander designs, Parabeton functions perfectly well as a stand-alone, providing a richly rewarding experience for those willing to go with Emigholz's gently uncompromising flow.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum) ?
Production company: Filmgalerie451 (in co-production with WDR and 3sat) ?
Director/screenwriter/director of photography: Heinz Emigholz ?
Producers: Frieder Schlaich, Irene von Alberti   
?Editors: Heinz Emigholz, Till Beckmann 
?Sales Agent: Filmgalerie 451, Berlin ?
No rating, 103 minutes