Sacro GRA, Tales from Rome’s Ring Road (Sacro GRA): Venice Review

'Sacro GRA'

Director: Gianfranco Rossi
In Competition

Gianfranco Rossi filmed for more than two years in a minivan on Rome’s giant ring road, the Grande Raccordo Anulare.

A humorous, humanistic approach enlivens an inventive documentary feature about people living around Rome’s ring road

Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary about a highway is a surprising sleeper.

Award-winning documaker Gianfranco Rosi  (Below Sea Level, El Sicario: Room 164) brings humor and sensitivity to his filming of the strange denizens who live and work around the Grande Raccordo Anulare, Rome’s huge ring road. Without trying to make a big point or push a political agenda, he taps into the everyday life of society’s fringe dwellers in a series of sketches. The recurring characters, almost all of them funny in an absurd, gentle way, make this intelligent film a curious outsider in the Italian film panorama. As the only feature documentary in Venice competition, it holds its own, though it’s hard to imagine it making a big noise commercially outside the appreciative festival circuit.

Rosi (no relation to veteran director Francesco Rosi) was inspired by author Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, in which Marco Polo is imagined describing his travels to emperor Kublai Khan. Like that book, the film leaves a lot of room to interpret what is shown on screen and to make value judgments. Among the interesting eccentrics he films are two aging transvestites who live in a camper parked on the side of the road, a prince and his family who rent their richly-appointed home out to film crews or employ it as a bed & breakfast, an eel fisherman who lives on the river with his middle-aged Ukrainian wife, and so on. They go about their business very naturally, as though there was no camera in the room. There’s nothing that could be called hilarious or earth-shaking here, yet these slightly off-beat folk hold viewers' attention with their everyday stories, which are excellently cut by Rosi’s regular editor Jacopo Quadri before they become tedius.

There seems to be a lot of drama lurking under the surface of these tales, like the untold backstory of an educated man with a long gray beard, who shares a tiny one-room subsidized housing unit with his grown daughter. Though he exclaims over their splendid view of St. Peter’s, all the audience sees is the ring road and an excruciating glimpse into genteel poverty.

Scenes like this make Rosi’s light touch a blessing. He manages to keep banality at bay even in the scenes of an ambulance patrolling the highway to fish the homeless out of canals and pull survivors out of car wrecks. The accident victim, strapped to a stretcher, jokes with the paramedic about going to work the next day. Towards the end of the film, the same paramedic is shown at home soothing his aged mother with touching tenderness.

The same concerned tenderness appears in the work of a somewhat fanatic tree doctor, who uses sophisticated sound equipment to listen to rapacious weevils eating up the insides of palm trees along the highway. Stopping the insects’ orgy of destruction is clearly more than a job for him; it’s a mission. The palm tree, he claims, has the form of a human soul. This, more than the view of St. Peter’s, probably accounts for the world "sacred" in the film's title.

Venue:  Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 5, 2013
Production company: Doclab in association with La Femme Endormie, Rai Cinema
Director: Gianfranco Rosi
Screenwriter: Nicolo Bassetti, Gianfranco Rosi
Producers: Marco Visalberghi, Carole Solive
Associate producer: Lizi Gelber
Creative producer: Dario Zonta
Director of photography: Gianfranco Rosi
Editor:  Jacopo Quadri
Sales: Doc & Film International
No rating,  93 minutes.