“First, some background information on the making of the film. Celati had spoken for some time about his wish to make what he called a “pseudo-documentary.” That is, the “realism” of the documentary would be maintained in terms of overall structure and style, but the film would be constructed according to a highly self-conscious artistic vision. In a recent interview, Celati was asked what aspects of the documentary interest him the most, and he responded: “Non credo molto ai documentari, perché l’idea che le immagini ti mostrino davvero come è fatta la realtà appartiene a un modo di pensare che non è il mio. A me sembra che i documentari siano racconti come tutti gli altri. Però mi piace poco anche l’idea di ‘fiction’ in cui il cinema è irrimediabilmente incastrato” (“Il sentimento dello spazio” 25-26). Clearly, the mixing of “real” documentary and “fictional” art film forms acts on both, blurring the boundaries between life and art, internal and external.With the financial support of RAI Tre, Celati was finally able to produce the film, which was shown last year on television, to what sort of audience response it is hard to imagine. When I saw Celati this summer in Bologna, he lamented the treatment accorded his film; it was shown very late at night and at least one part of the sound-track mix was missing. He asked that it be shown right, but so far no reshowing has been scheduled. Celati also mentioned, as a visual reference point, the importance of Edward Hopper’s painting to his takes, as he and Ghirri (and the “tourist-group” cast, made up of thirty relatives and friends) traveled through the Po Delta region gathering many many hours of shots that were eventually edited down into the film of around one hour. Let me begin, especially for those of you who have not seen the film, with a bare-bones description of it. A group of tourists takes a bus tour through the landscapes and towns of the Po Delta. That is, in a sense, it. There is no plot as such; there are no “meaningful” human interactions or extraordinary occurrences. The film is, quite consciously I believe, about “nothing.” And, although I call it a “silent movie” in my title, I should say that it is not literally silent, but rather reaches after the silent, seeks to “ascoltare il silenzio,” to use Paolo Valesio’s wonderful phrase. Celati uses various sounds—music, human voices—as well as actual silences to great effect throughout. The “videostory” brings together many threads that run through the recent writing: the locales are, of course, those also found in Narratori delle pianure and Verso la foce; the dialogues and monologues are often “mini-stories” which, in being seen and heard on screen, remind us of the basic corporeal orality and presence of storytelling, just as the written texts seek to do; the constant emphasis on seeing and being seen harks back to the interest in appearances as in Quattro novelle sulle apparenze.
This film works on our imaginative capacity much more than on a logico-rational apperception of the world. In her excellent study, The Body in the Mirror: Shapes of History in Italian Cinema, Angela Dalle Vacche uses Vico (among others) as a starting point for her consideration of filmic representation. She reminds us that “Vico believed that human beings acquire knowledge only by representing themselves, and by translating mental processes into visible, anthropomorphic forms.” The earliest forms of these self-representations were, however, much more image-oriented than abstractly verbal, as “this early language was without sound. The visual dimension played a crucial role in this mute language because primitive people had no speculative skills, only imaginative ones. . . . Vico’s sense that the first language of humankind was mute, visual, and corporeal may very well have been preserved in the cinema” (10-11). These three adjectives can be applied as well to Celati’s art, both verbal and filmic, in which he seeks to transcend the limits of traditionally linguistic representations by heightening our awareness of the eloquence of silence, of seeing and being seen, and of the body’s role in imagining and reasoning alike.
La strada provinciale delle anime uses several means to stimulate our imaginative skills, relying more on the understated and the suggestive than on the straightforwardly expository presentation of scenes. As the film opens, Celati’s voice-over tells us that thirty people took off in a “corriera azzurra” on a trip through the Po Delta “per vedere in un altro modo.” Another voice tells us, “Non abbiamo visto niente di speciale,” simply “tante case” and “tanta gente come noi.” As they start out, the tour group’s bus comes to a signpost indicating that the road ahead is called “la strada provinciale delle anime.” In the recent interview, Celati says that the road and its name provided “una logica del nostro racconto” (28). The voice-over comments that the road “non porta da nessuna parte.” Throughout, a varied musical soundtrack accompanies the movement through space, sometimes classical and soaring, sometimes jazzy and dissonant. Diverse voices provide a “human soundtrack” as well. This initial moment serves to highlight the literally “provincial” locales that the group will visit (no well-known or major cities will be stops on this itinerary), but the reference to
“souls” (“delle anime”) immediately takes us out of the realm of the solely literal, and into that of imaginative and spiritual journeys. (Parenthetically, one of my students consistently referred to the film as La strada provinciale delle anime perse, thus showing the tenacious influence of a Dantesque perspective generated by the word “anime.”) The provinces in which the film will wander also take on the metaphorical sense of the place of art as described by Fellini (quoted by John Berger in his essay “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” in Keeping a Rendezvous): “What is an artist? A provincial who finds himself somewhere between a physical reality and a metaphysical one . . . it’s this in-between that I’m calling a province, this frontier-country between the tangible world and the intangible—which is really the realm of the artist” (18-19). The members of the tour group—now associated with the “anime” of the road marker—are quite “normal”; they are old and young, men and women, couples and single people, Italian and non-Italian. They travel comfortably in a typical tour bus, where we see them talking to each other, looking out of the windows, dozing, reading, writing, looking sometimes interested in their surroundings, sometimes supremely bored. The various “tappe” in the journey are identified by means of interpolated written commentaries in the style of silent-film dialogue boxes, scrolls and all. These are not well-known spots, for this is not a part of Italy that has been developed by the tourist industry either for its own citizens or for foreign visitors. As they move “verso la foce” of the Po, roughly between Rovigo to the North and Ferrara to the South, they stop at places like Goro, Codigoro, Argine Agosta, and Comacchio. They also stop in many unidentified landscapes, where marshy plains stretch out to the horizon and no towns are visible. For the most part, the weather is overcast, misty, and rainy, adding to the sense of being nowhere in particular. When they arrive to a town, they descend from the bus, walk around, chat with local citizens, look at their surroundings, and generally show the sort of mild befuddlement that tour groups often show when not being strongly “orchestrated” by a leader. In fact, it is precisely to this aimlessness that Celati directs attention. As we gradually stop waiting for “something to happen,” we too become caught up in a sense of aimless motion through space, which can be either pleasant or disturbing depending on individual expectations. The sense of solitude in company is also quite strong, for even the couples seem unable to help each other to break through the state of mild disorientation brought on by this trip (and perhaps all trips, especially those not clearly goal-oriented or highly choreographed by an authoritative leader). Although both Celati and Ghirri are in the film, neither actively directs the action, instead more commonly merging themselves into the desultory conversations and casual strolls of the group. As comic counterpoint, there is an “organizer,” a man with a microphone and a gruff manner of speaking, who throughout tries to round up the errant group, arranges for hotel and restaurant accommodations, and generally does his best to give some order and form to their wanderings. In spite of his efforts, the group members more often than not look slightly bewildered and a bit lost. At a certain point, a voice-over muses: “E meglio sentirsi persi o guardare solo quello che ti hanno detto di guardare?” Celati’s preference is clear. We, the spectators, thus join the travelers—who are themselves spectators—in having to construct meanings for what we see that depend much more on something like errancy and daydreaming (individual imagination) than linearity and logic (“grand narratives”).”