Gianfranco Rosi’s patchwork documentary Sacro GRA is focused both on place and people. Structured as a series of vignettes focused on people who live or work around the Grande Raccordo Anulare, a mammoth ring road that encircles Rome, it attempts to capture some essence of life in the area, edited and shot in a freeform fashion to avoid any forced narrative construction. Much of the film is admirable, many of the subjects in the film are amusing and engaging and the way Rosi plays with narrative expectation has some pleasant results late in the film. What is disappointing, though, is that it doesn’t really amount to more than a mostly pleasant series of scenes – there is no substantive connection other than the overarching premise of the film and the thematic resonance is mostly weak.
The very nature of the film’s content gives it a lackadaisical pace, we sit fixed on the side of a building as a father and daughter talk marriage or as tenants discuss how strange the abandoned villas across the way are, and this pace is actually refreshing, a rare naturalism flourishing in many scenes. The structure of the film could have used some realignment. One of the better elements of the film is the way it returns to select buildings and narratives within one space, and the film could have used more of this, perhaps a narrowed focus, even. The apartment building adjacent the GRA provides much amusement and when some of the people within these vignettes pop up later in the film – a wannabe DJ in the apartment block ends up playing at a childrens’ sport event – it gives the film a sense of life moving forward.
The aimlessness of the film, then, could have been enriched had all of the subjects been interesting, yet some just waste away the runtime, a former diplomat of some kind is the worst culprit, as is a subplot involving the creation of a telenova, which feels less natural than an almost heavy-handed attempt to force artistic creation and image-making within a film itself. The fact that Rosi later shows the fisherman reading such a telenova cements this sense of contrived influence. There are some naturally evolving thematic ideas, mainly in looking at intimate relationships – between parents and children we have the apartment pair and also a pretty heartbreaking scene where the ambulance driver, who serves as the closest thing to a protagonist in the film, visits his aging mother, whose memory is disappearing. Regarding the idea of marriage, the eel fisherman and his Ukranian wife provide some amusement in their physical and verbal contrasts as well as the underlying affection that seems to pervade the space, despite some of the apparent disconnect in understanding.
The cinematography is caught at an odd divide, often striking at night, with scenes on roads especially engaging (the camera is mounted to the front of an ambulance at times), yet as soon as it transitions to day it loses much of its beauty. The first shock of daylight, a hideously overexposed sequence involving a mass religious gathering to see an eclipse feels less in line with the rhythmic realism of what came before it and instead feels forced. While it, thankfully, regains some visual sense, particularly in some nice scenes with a man hell-bent on protecting palm trees from termites, it lacks a visual cohesiveness. It may have been better off focusing entirely on what happens at night on the GRA.
Sacro GRA isn’t a bad film by any means, just an underwhelming one. Its Golden Lion win at Venice, the first for any documentary, is very bizarre considering the film doesn’t actually bring anything new or innovative to the documentary form. There are some moving elements and intriguing figures amongst the intercut vignettes but the film never quite delivers enough profundity to warrant its approach or acclaim.