It sounds like an avant-garde theater maven's most cherished dream: Every year a small town writes and stages a topical "autodrama" based on the residents' own experiences. But a Tuscan village's 51st annual spectacle — Spettacolo in Italian — may be the last.
Perhaps it was all downhill from Monticchiello's first play, which recounted an incident whose drama can hardly be topped: In 1944, German troops arrived in the hilltop medieval town to exterminate the entire population for collaborating with anti-fascist partisans. Only the intervention of a German woman who lived in the hamlet prevented the massacre.
When American husband-and-wife filmmakers Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen arrive in the cobblestoned village, Monticchiello's thespians face two problems. Interest in the annual outdoor pageant is dwindling as longtime stalwarts become ill or die, or reject the plays' political messages, while younger people mostly decline to take the veterans' places. Also, the only available subject seems to be what one resident describes as Italy's "never-ending" economic crisis.
The fiscal dilemma, this engaging documentary gradually reveals, is a mix of specifically Italian political corruption and the global rise of the class termed "the one percent." Tuscany is home to many of these plutocrats, who arrive from throughout the affluent world to convert former farmhouses into vacation "villas." But they live elsewhere for most of the year, and an attempt to build affordable housing for longtime residents sits abandoned at the bottom of Monticchiello's hillock.
Finally, the play makers decide to dramatize nothing less than "the end of the world." The bits of workshopping, rehearsal, and performance we see indicate that the earth will be destroyed not by fire or ice, but by bankers. That satirical appraisal is ratified by a real-life event during the play's preparations. The development is both telling and the funniest thing in the movie.
Malmberg (who photographed) and Shellen (who edited) are not the most dogmatic of cinema verite filmmakers. They include photos and video footage of previous productions, providing needed context. Still, they withhold much information. Even the story's central character, gray-bearded director and dramaturge Andrea Cresti, is barely introduced. Other players remain even more shadowy, unless they can be encapsulated in a single event — like the funeral of a man who had been one of the troupe's stars.
"The future is tourism," announces a middle-aged Monticchiello resident, but no one discusses the role of tourists in sustaining the play. The town has only 136 residents, so the audience members must come from elsewhere. (Some of them probably visit mostly for the handmade pici pasta served before the show.) Also unmentioned is the wider tradition of "teatro povero" (poor theater) productions in rural Italy. Is Monticchiello's theater singular, or just more ambitious than the others?
Inevitably, Spettacolo itself has tourist appeal. Shot over a year, the film celebrates the changing landscape and a picturesque village that, if not eternal, looks timeless compared to the most of the pre-fab, tract-developed world. The residents' way of life might be in decline, but there's no hint of poverty, and the sense of loss seems more cultural than financial.
Monticchiello's public theater may perish. But the bus tours and villa buyers will keep coming.