It is usually rare to see documentaries in major film festivals like Cannes or Venice. Moviegoers prefer to think of documentaries as a genre that gives some educational insight, while narrative films are another form of art. However, Gianfranco Rosi’s Sacro GRA became the first documentary film to win Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival for Best Picture. After watching it myself, I can see why critics at the Venice Film Fest awarded this movie—it attempted to combine two different genres into one, an artistic take on documentaries. Sacro GRA gave a new perspective into the lives of Roman people, but the abstract editing and storytelling won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.
Director Gianfranco Rosi spent about two years filming the life of Grande Raccordo Anulare, the ring-road highway that circles Rome. The film is basically a series of interweaving vignettes about people living nearby the circular highway. It opens up on the dark, quiet highway, then cuts to inside of an ambulance. There, an EMS worker named Roberto, one of few fleshed-out characters of this film, helps an injured man coping with his pain. After that, we meet a scientist named Francesco researching red palm weevils that are ravaging palm trees. In between two scenes, we also see a flock of sheep, with the GRA highway in the background. There are various other highlights of people’s lives and an artistic look into a relatively mundane topic.
With beautiful camera shots, it is interesting to have an intimate look into the lives of others. There is a scene where a group of religious people become elated over a sign from Virgin Mary. I felt like I was experiencing the same joy with them. However, that’s one of better parts of the film. Watching this film entirely, I got completely lost with its real intention. It cuts to new scenes in a very repetitive manner, and it’s difficult to understand how the scenes are related.
It took me a long time when I figured it out that this is not just a movie to experience, but also a movie that makes you think about the meaning of the road. According to the director, the structure of the film is loosely based on the novel “Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino. From what I heard about the novel, it’s about Marco Polo recalling his past journeys to the emperor, which also involves the holy grail. The title of this film is a pun on Sacro Graal or Holy Grail in Italian. Unfortunately, searching for the real meaning of GRA road with only one viewing of the film is just as elusive as the actual holy grail.
I might change my mind on this film if I give this movie another chance; it really needs several views to understand the core idea that director Gianfranco Rosi trying to present. It may have overwhelmed me for the first time, but it does have some merits. I was highly fascinated by people’s meaningful conversations, and the urban landscape of Rome. If you look at Sacro GRA as a tourist ad, it may be the most disjointed tourist ad ever. But as video art, it is a beautiful look into Italian urban lifestyle. It may not for everyone, but if you like being challenged by artistic movies like La Dolce Vita, or any movies done by directors like Fellini, give it a shot.
By Jay Whang