What Year is This?: Pietro Marcello’s Untimely Cinema

Long before “Martin Eden,” Marcello’s documentaries manifest that anachronism that makes his cinema so singular and entrancing.
Leonardo Goi

A double bill of films by Pietro Marcello is showing April and May, 2020 on MUBI in the United States.

The first shot of the first feature by documentarian maverick Pietro Marcello’s is a quote from Belgian novelist Georges Simenon. “I crossed the line three times. The first illegally, with the help of a smuggler. And somehow, legally at least once. Surely I’m one of the very few who returned willingly to the starting point.” The quote appears in Simenon’s 1958 Le passage de la ligne, and introduces Crossing the Line (2007), a portrait of Italy seen through its railroads and told by the passengers crossing the peninsula overnight. But with all its endless meanderings through landscapes and genres, dotted with travelers caught in a constant state of flux, the words also read as some prescient label for what Marcello’s cinema would turn out to be.

Last summer, as we sat to discuss Martin Eden after the film’s Venice premiere, Marcello said his latest was the natural evolution of all the works that came before it. For anyone vaguely acquainted with his cinema—not a compartmentalized and water-tight universe, but a spurious realm where different art forms and films exist in conversation with each other—the claim won’t come as much of a surprise. Geographically, the starting point of that elastic universe is Naples, the southern Italian city in and around which the self-taught documentarian would set his early short docs (Il Cantiere, 2004; La Baracca, 2005) and to which he’d return with Martin Eden, an adaptation of Jack London’s 1909 bildungsroman that shifts the novel’s locale from Oakland to the Mediterranean. Thematically, the common thread is an interest in documenting people at society’s margins, and in squaring their struggles as part of a larger one against modernity.

Shooting over weekends with a micro-budget and micro-crew, Crossing the Line sent Marcello on a seven-month journey aboard Italy’s long-distance express trains, a relic of the 1940s that helped propel the country’s post-war economic miracle by drawing unemployed folks from the rural South to the industrial North. Seventy-plus years later, the migratory fluxes have hardly changed. Italy remains a country mired in inequalities, the north-south divide an unsealed wound, and the folks Marcello stumbles into grapple with the same specter that haunted their ancestors: money, and the lack thereof.

To that end, Crossing the Line traces a history of continuities, tying together southerners and undocumented migrants in a pilgrimage that accrues a near-mythical aura (“it’s like you’re Superman,” a young man puts it early on, “like James Bond on a mission”). What emerges is a nocturnal reverie of carriages and men, a hypnotic canvas of nomads trapped in an exodus as spectral as the views outside (city lights burning against the night, cloud reefs rimmed in pale rose above the sea at dawn) are soothing.

Within that cacophony of hopes and fears, Marcello singles out a passenger, the first and oldest we’ll meet: Arturo Nicolodi. A concentration camp survivor who dined with Churchill, fought for a pan-European federation well before anyone ever dreamed of the E.U., founded a party only to be incarcerated as anarchist, and eventually gave up all his possession to embrace a nomadic life along the country’s railroads, the nonagenarian bestows the film with a rebellious scrap of history. As with many other memorable subjects that would populate his works, Marcello’s said he bumped into Nicolodi serendipitously, and the chance encounter is nothing short of a miracle. For the old man’s musings are the film’s beating heart, trumpeting the glory of a life on the railroad while recalling political struggles from decades prior still haunting the continent today. 

And yet the film’s power resides not in those anecdotes, but in the way Marcello inscribes them within a journey that appears to unfold in an unceasing loop. Crossing the Line conjures a vanishing world. Many of the old trains Marcello jumps on were decommissioned just months after the film unveiled in Venice, and a list of their names at the end of the credits (echoing bucolic and artistic lineage: Treno del Sole, Gattopardo, Bellini, Freccia del Sud…) reads like an obituary. But even as it comes with an expiry date attached, the film hangs in a region where time no longer seems to hold sway. Never once does Marcello’s camera leave those carriages. Landscapes only appear through windows, and while the conversations are stitched together so as to give the illusion of a single night ride, the stations gliding past us—Genoa, Messina, Turin, Rome… —evoke an impossibly tortuous zig-zag, trapping those commuters in an eternal, cyclic odyssey. How long since the journey began? How long till it ends? 

Marcello’s often described himself as an untimely director, a quality he shares with his own characters: outcasts unable (or unwilling) to be assimilated into their zeitgeist. You could even argue that the director’s self-taught and D.I.Y. credentials suit his subjects—that their belligerent idealism finds a formal equivalent in Marcello’s artisanal filmmaking. But that untimeliness also doubles as an interest in digging under the surface of capitalism’s façades, and bring them into conversation with the outmoded worlds hidden just underneath. Central to the experience of a Marcello film is a disorienting feeling, of being at once locked in a given historical moment and stuck in an endless time-loop. His cinema layers together past and present, situating us in a jumbled chronology that strives to resurrect something of the people, rituals, and processes that modernity wiped away.

If Crossing the Line ends up locking those late-night voyagers in a permanent migration, reuniting them with their ancestors by way of their shared sorrows, The Mouth of the Wolf (2009) makes that hauntological undercurrent its very cornerstone. Crossing the Line landed Marcello a residency at a Jesuit community from Genoa. Invited to capture the northern port city’s underbelly, it took him almost a year until he zeroed in on a couple of castaways: Sicilian-born, Genoa-raised Enzo and his trans partner Mary. 

Enzo and Mary met behind bars, where she was doing time for a drug-related offence and he was serving part of a 27-year cumulative sentence for a wide assortment of crimes. Marcello bumped into Enzo by sheer chance, and after several months, cajoled Mary into joining the project. As an impassioned testament to the resilience of their love, The Mouth of the Wolf unfolds as an engrossing conversation between the two. This is recreated by Marcello through fragments of the tape recordings Enzo and Mary exchanged once she left prison and waited for him to walk free, which carom in voiceover off the walls of their dim-lit apartment and into the narrow alleys outside. The standout scene is a long, near-uninterrupted shot of the couple reminiscing their prison days before the camera—an extraordinarily heartrending and candid segment where the two recount the silent alphabet they invented to communicate from opposite cells, their dreams of growing old together, their struggles to survive the loneliness and each other’s distance.

Yet the romance only covers half of the film. The other looks outward, situating Enzo and Mary’s love within a larger, more expansive canvas of the city and its poorest suburbs. It’s a micro-macro approach that concocts an endearing tribute to “the shipwrecked of the earth,” as a voice over calls the downtrodden, and one to their home turf. The film’s working title (Ad Genua) made that city-wide ode more explicit. And it’s telling that Marcello would dedicate The Mouth of the Wof to “all those who filmed Genoa in the 20th century.” This, in a very literal sense, is their film too, as Enzo and Mary’s story is interspersed with archival footage of the city shot by cineastes through the decades, and stitched together by editor and longtime Marcello collaborator Sara Fgaier.

With its widespread use of archives, The Mouth of the Wolf heralds a leitmotiv that would traverse Marcello’s oeuvre all the way to Martin Eden, where Luca Marinelli’s meanderings through Naples’ working-class neighborhoods are intercut with glimpses of the city’s faces and places from previous epochs. In Genoa, the archives jostle halcyon days of beach-side fun with monumental shots of the old shipbuilding industries, where vessels emerge from the docks and out toward the Mediterranean. It’s all “an archaeology of memory,” the voice over warns us. But these are not inert time capsules, and billing them as flashbacks would be to miss out on the complex dialectic they share with the film’s gestalt. 

As anywhere else in Marcello’s oeuvre, old and present-day footage coexist here as part of the same living tissue. And credit for the feeling goes to the way Marcello and Fgaier insert those ancient glimpses of Genoa as if they belonged to Enzo’s point of view. In one crucial early juncture, the man walks towards the camera and suddenly looks to his right, at which point the film cuts to a series of snippets of the city’s industrial past. What does Enzo see? Chimneys and billowing smoke, boats dropping massive boulders into the water to expand the port, workers toiling in smelting factories, the city’s docks standing dark against a sky all ochers and coppers. Time and again, The Mouth of the Wolf resorts to the same stratagem, turning Enzo into a privileged observer of that heritage, a mediator between two cities. In so doing, the film raises the possibility that the man may belong to that bygone era already, that the city forgot him like it did with its own past. Less fatalistically, it also suggests that those historical residues are still omnipresent, lurking under all images and ready to surface in between them—if one just cares to look.

Cinema was a fortuitous plan B for Marcello, who studied fine arts in hopes to become a painter, but gave up shortly after graduating. That early influence explains the pictorial quality of his works, but also that desire to keep cinema an open field, exposed and receptive to many heterogeneous inputs. Predictably, such porous universe can only produce unclassifiable oddballs. If one can somewhat confidently bill Crossing the Line as documentary, what are we to make of The Mouth of the Wolf? Is it a doc, too? Fiction? Some hybrid? And what about Marcello’s 2015 Lost and Beautiful, which kicked off as an exposé on a Campanian shepherd guarding an abandoned 18th royal palace, and after the man died of a heart attack midway through the shoot, plunged into Italian folklore and summoned a Pulcinella to escort the late man’s baby buffalo to a new home? 

Much of the mystifying allure of Marcello’s work stems from its singular, sui generis beauty, the kind that makes the docu-fiction binary utterly irrelevant. Coming from someone who’s staunchly defended his independence from other models, The Silence of Pelešjan (2011), a biographical documentary on the great Armenian director and father of “distance montage” Artavazd Pelešjan, might be the closest Marcello’s ever come to a self-reflective examination of his own method. Pelešjan agreed to the film on condition he’d be allowed to remain silent throughout it. Even so, the documentary opens with a quote where the Armenian elucidates his conception of montage, positing that that its essence is “not to connect frames, but to separate them,” so that “the most important thing is to let the key elements interact at distance like charged particles, and create an emotional field around the whole film.” Aside from the use of archives, it’s this penchant for anti-linear narratives juxtaposing and conjoining different elements and timelines that aligns Marcello with Pelešjan’s vision. Theirs is a cinema that works to stimulate long-term memories, colliding images and sounds that may activate mysterious and oftentimes belated connections.

This accounts, perhaps, for the curious déjà vu Marcello’s films can leave you with. Crossing the Line ends where The Mouth of the Wolf begins, with Enzo stepping out of a train and heading home through the city’s docks. Martin Eden too begins with archive footage of a train ride, barreling through a tunnel as the film propels us from images of Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta to Martin’s last days, Marinelli’s weathered face bent over a tape recorder. It’s as if all of it belonged to the same sprawling maze, where characters disappear only to surface in other films, in different shapes and different names, borne back ceaselessly to the start.  

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