BEIRUT: When Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza presented their sophomore feature “Sicilian Ghost Story” at the Metropolis Cinema earlier this week, the capacity audience was enthusiastic. That might have been because the writer-director team behind the 2013 feature “Salvo” took several prizes after its debut at Cannes’ Semaine Internationale de la Critique, including the Grand Prize.
It may also have been related to something that the Palermo-born Grassadonia addressed while presenting the new film. During their few days in Lebanon, he blinked, he and Piazza (also from Palermo) detected some striking similarities between Lebanon and Sicily. The brief pause that followed his careful remark was filled by gales of laughter from the audience.
Piazza and Grassadonia’s film is based on an unsightly episode from recent Sicilian history. In 1993, 12-year-old Giuseppe Di Matteo was kidnapped by a Mafia family and held captive for 779 days. Then he was garroted and his body dissolved in acid. Outraged that no monument had been left to the boy – and inspired by a short story based upon the Di Matteo case by Marco Mancassola – the filmmakers decided to make a cinematic fairy tale. In doing so they bolstered the knowable facts of Di Matteo’s captivity with a host of genre tropes, realized by the not-inconsiderable talents of Luca Bigazzi – Paolo Sorrentino’s cinematographer.
During the Q&A that followed the projection, the audience was preoccupied by the history at the core of Di Matteo’s tragedy. A single question addressed the fairy tale conceit used to transform a brutal newspaper story into a work of cinematic lyricism.
“Ghost Story,” and the audience’s response to it, raises questions about the romance between “fact” and “fiction” in contemporary cinema, an embrace that expresses a longing for “truth” shared by filmmakers and the public, one that exerts itself differently from story to story.
In its marriage of fiction and fact, Emmanuel Gras’ “Makala” offers an interesting counterpoint to “Ghost Story.”
The Grand Prize-winner in the 2017 edition of SIC, “Makala” recounts a story from the lives of Kabwita and Lydie Kasongo, a young couple struggling to raise a family in rural Congo.
The couple’s kids are little more than infants, though they have an older daughter who lives with Lydie’s sister several kilometers distant. A devout Christian, Kabwita is impatient to build a new house for his family – he imagines a three-bedroom place surrounded by fruit trees. Kabwita is in every scene – doggedly followed by Gras’ Steadicam – but little else is disclosed about him other than the fact that he supports his family by making and selling charcoal.
This laborious process forms the documentary core of the work and it preoccupies most of the footage – from hacking down and dismembering a massive tree, burying it in a sod oven where it’s set alight to reduce the hardwood to coal; to packing it on a rickety bicycle that he must push 50 kilometers along bad roads (made treacherous by speeding transport trucks and informal checkpoints manned by toll-collecting miscreants) to the nearest town, there to hawk his hard-wrought commodity for ever-diminishing prices.
“Makala” is the cinematographer-cum-director’s third feature-length film, the first to cross the hazy border separating fiction from documentary. On the spectrum that used to exist in cinema, Gras’ film resides somewhat closer to cinema verite than neorealism. There’s little pretense that the Kasongos are “acting” any role other than their own lives. The exhaustion on Kabwita’s face as he struggles to keep his overladen bicycle erect and moving forward seems utterly authentic.
Most of the fictive elements Gras adds to the story (the absence of a saw – though Kabwita’s felled tree has clearly not been dismembered with an ax – his bike’s being knocked over by a passing truck, the prayerful devotions he performs for the camera) resemble re-enactments intended to heighten narrative tension. These demi-fictions are generally unobtrusive. There is some narrative unease, however, between the premise that the protagonist has been doing this work for some time and his innocence of market realities and roadside thuggery.
If Kabwita’s story were framed as academic fieldwork rather than a feature film, it would be an excellent illustration of what some researchers call primary capital accumulation.
Gras himself seems to want to suggest biblical parallels with his protagonist’s struggle, orchestrating a visit to an evangelical church to adorn the end of Kabwita’s trials.
“Makala,” however, resists literature. It is a film diary of the ecological, physical and emotional expenditure of one individual’s efforts to make a living at the lowest tier of the global economy, and the meager returns that issue.
Gras’ work is handsomely shot but the aesthetic of a lone figure struggling across a scared landscape is as adorned as the story is fictional.
Piazza and Grassadonia’s investment in the fiction of “Ghost Story” is far more extravagant.
The story is told from the perspective of a fictional character, Luna (Julia Jedlikowska), who professes her love for Di Matteo in the hours before he disappears – a powerful trigger for obsessive behavior (as demonstrated with cruel eloquence in “The Vanishing,” George Sluizer’s 1988 adult fairy tale).
The ensuing emotional vacuum in Luna’s life is accentuated by the unerring wickedness of her Swiss mother (Sabine Timoteo), and only partly offset by her kindly father (Vincenzo Amato) – a dynamic that, to some, will seem an inversion of Guillermo del Toro’s dark fairy tale “Pan’s Labyrinth.”
Whether set in late-civil war Spain or 1990s Sicily, it’s the sort of vacuum that is readily filed by fantasy – which, thanks to the film’s point of view, is expressed as a supernatural connection between the two youngsters that (in Luna’s mind) pulls her and Giuseppe together during his captivity.
The filmmakers’ interest in using miraculous and supernatural flourishes to breach the banal brutalities of the Mafia narrative was used to great effect in the less-balanced yet compelling “Salvo.”
Here a Mafia enforcer (Saleh Bakri) exudes an otherworldly presence that makes him resemble a sort of dark angel, which somehow restores the sight of a young blind woman he’s taken hostage.
“Ghost Story” is both more factual and – thanks to Bigazzi’s lush visuals and Cristiano Travaglioli’s postproduction – more fantastical than “Salvo.” Ironically, the story’s emotional and historical proximity can make the aesthetic flourishes – consistent as they are to fairy tale convention – somehow inappropriate.
It’s one of the dangers of making beautiful fiction out of ugly fact.
“Makala” will be projected Sunday, July 9, 8:30 p.m. at Metropolis Cinema Sofil, in the presence of its director. For more, see www.metropoliscinema.net.