'Piazza Vittorio': Film Review | Venice 2017

Piazza Vittorio Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
Hip to be Square.

Abel Ferrara's latest documentary chronicles and celebrates the eponymous Roman square.

The empire may be long gone, but many of the world's roads still lead to Rome — as celebrated in Abel Ferrara's likably intimate documentary Piazza Vittorio. An insider's tour of the rough and tumble city downtown 'hood that the veteran maverick now calls home, the film touches on some hot button themes of migration, integration and racism in a breezy and accessible style. Premiering at Venice before a stateside bow in October at the New York Film Festival in Ferrara's native city, it will clock up plentiful festival play and TV exposure, though is perhaps too small-scale for theatrical engagements beyond Rome and NYC.

Structured as a day in the life of Rome's biggest square — officially named the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II — the film has the pleasing feel of an enterprise casually dashed off on the fly, and indeed reportedly started life as a research project for Ferrara's upcoming apocalyptic sci-fi movie Roma Anno Zero. It makes for an unofficial companion piece to his most recent nonfiction feature, Mulberry Street (2010), which Ferrara shot while resident in Manhattan's eponymous Little Italy thoroughfare.

Ferrara has evidently found a true home away from home. The Piazza and its environs in the Esquilino district are known as the Italian capital's most multicultural area, bustling with long-settled migrants and more recent arrivals from trouble spots in the Mideast and northern Africa. Eschewing the self-effacing, fly-on-the-wall approach still in vogue among most documentarians, Ferrara pops up time and again, his ebullient garrulousness yielding lively responses from his interviewees.

The director's tiny crew is also occasionally visible, in an unapologetically low budget, unvarnished affair that is refreshingly candid and open about its own production process: There's a particularly memorable moment when the Ferrara is seen negotiating with a reluctant subject who finally agrees on a €15 payment for a five-minute chat.

Editor Fabio Nunziata keeps things rattling along at a brisk clip over the course of 76 economic minutes, interpolating monochrome footage from the Cinecitta Luce archive that shows the Piazza in the bustling post-World War II days when its market, now indoors, was entirely al fresco. The range of speakers chosen is geographically and ethnically diverse, Ferrara reveling in an environment one suspects reminds him of the hard knock Bronx and Manhattan of his 1960s youth.

This is a district of Rome whose unsavory reputation for crime and urban decay ensures that tourists arriving at the nearby Termini railway station seldom linger long. But the ungentrified, edgy nature of Piazza Vittorio is, of course, precisely what appeals to such artistic/bohemian types as Ferrara, his fellow director Matteo Garrone (briefly glimpsed) and his frequent collaborator Willem Dafoe. We see the star of Ferrara's last feature, Pasolini (2014), shopping for fruit and vegetables, happily incognito; he praises the "diversity of experience" to found in a place where "somehow, stuff gets done."

Chatty by nature, Ferrara goes quiet when allotting screen time to those dismayed by the cosmopolitanism and accompanying chaos that gives the Piazza its boisterous energy — ranging from charming Italian grandmothers to the glibly eloquent neo-Fascists from the right wing CasaPound organization, which occupies a nearby building. A survey of the Mussolini-type posters adorning CasaPound walls leaves the viewer in no doubt as to their historical allegiances; the film itself, in its inclusiveness and bluff bonhomie, stands as an implicit rebuke to their reactionary stance.

World cinema currently has no shortage of documentaries venturing beyond the headlines to examine the practicalities and consequences of mass migration. Piazza Vittorio stands out from the pack by simultaneously functioning as a heartfelt, evocative tribute to an atmospheric and fascinating urban neighborhood. The Eternal City abides, once again proving a tough, productive muse for receptive filmmakers; Pasolini would approve.

Production company: Enjoy Movies
Director / Screenwriter / Cinematographer: Abel Ferrara
Producer: Andrea de Liberato
Editor: Fabio Nunziata
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out Of Competition)
Sales: Enjoy Movies, Rome (andreadeliberato@gmail.com)
In Italian and English
No Rating, 76 minutes