Rome is a city well known for its old world charm, its complex and ancient past, and for its relics and buildings that span the history of civilization itself. However, unless you’re talking about its original roads, as in the ones built by the Roman Empire, not a lot is said of traffic in Rome. One interesting aspect of the modern Roman roadways though is the GRA, or the Grande Raccordo Anulare, which means “Great Ring Junction.” It’s a circular road that surrounds the city like a ring, and although Rome has its treasures and wonders, the GRA is certainly not one of them.
Indeed, there is something ordinary about the GRA, and that’s the angle that Sacro GRA, is trying to make. This is the first documentary to ever win the Venice International Film Festival’s Golden Lion Award, and although I found it quite interesting, it’s not exactly ground-breaking or revealing. Interestingly, I think one of the things that the film re-enforced for me was the universal ordinariness of life by a busy road, whether it’s Highway 401, U.S. Route 20 or the GRA.
Sacro GRA trades between focusing on a couple of key characters, and being a kind of fly on the wall, watching all the action along the side streets and buildings of the very busy six-lane highway. Director Gianfranco Rosi catches life in motion. There are no character arcs, and no overriding goals. No one’s protesting anything, or getting a petition together, or trying to tell an untold story. It’s just people going about their lives, and they really are just the typical kind of people, too.
One of the characters is a paramedic named Roberto, who’s obviously always responding to one kind of car accident along the ring road. Roberto seems to be a skilled and dedicated emergency worker, but it’s inferred that he’s also kind of lonely as he talks to relatives via Skype during a break. Further along the road is a classical looking villa owned by Filippo, whose ubiquitous cigar and bathrobe screams leisurely Italian man. Filippo rents out the house for photo and film shoots, and today it’s rented out for a photo novel involving actors in costume posing in the grand salon and other parts of the main floor. Filippo, meanwhile, relaxes upstairs in the tub, and then later playing computer solitaire.
Elsewhere, another man named Francesco surveys the trees along the road looking for insect infestation, but it’s not clear if he’s doing this for a scientific study or his own mere curiosity. On a nearby river, a man named Cesare fishes for eels, and it looks like he’s the only one. The camera also pans over fields near the road that are full of sheep, grazing on the grass but keeping their distance from the cars zooming to and from on the highway.
I suppose there’s a statement here about the collision of the natural world and modern society, as an ecosystem struggles to thrive as it’s surrounded by one of the most important roadways in Italy. It’s not subtle, but it’s an important point just the same.
I like the style of the film, and I like the idea of setting up the camera, pointing it, and then watching what happens, but I do wonder what the timeline of the movie is: was this a couple of days along the GRA? A week? Random points throughout the year? Some of the voyeuristic elements I found kind of problematic, like spying into apartment windows unbeknownst (maybe?) to those inside. I can understand if there was a kind of story to follow there, but panning across the different windows and seeing people watching TV and or getting ready for a night out seems like filler. Romans are just like us here in North America, I guess, is another message.
Still, there is a tremendous magnetic quality to the film as the stories and scenery flow into one another quite easily, and although Sacro GRA appears to be no frills, that might be because the filmmakers just know how to leave no fingerprints. There’s unquestionable skill behind the film, and the technical specifications are all terrific, from the cinematography to the sound design. The documentary delivers exactly what it wants to deliver, but what that is may be up to the viewer. Some may be frustrated by the meandering nature, and some may find it exhilarating to not be tied to anyone story. Like the road it’s about, Sacro GRA can take you anywhere, and sometimes that’s an imperfect circle.
Sacro GRA is a technically well-made film, but it may require audience members to be open-minded to enjoy it.