By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist September 8, 2013 at 3:09PM
It's a good thing that "Sacro GRA" won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, yesterday (making it the first documentary to win the top prize in the 70-year history of the festival). Because, quite frankly, it's just about the only reason you'd come to read this review. Its director, Gianfranco Rosi, isn't a major name outside Italy, and its subject matter—the lives of those who live or work on or near the GRA, the enormous ring-road that circles Rome—was also more targeted to the home crowd. It's great that a documentary has broken through and won the Lion, but we're a little baffled that a film as unremarkable as this one was the one to do so.
The GRA, or Grande Raccordo Anulare (Great Ring Road) was completed in 1970 and runs 42 miles in circumference, but Rosi isn't especially interested in the highway itself, instead, he focuses on the people who live their lives just off, or occasionally on it. In a Frederick Wiseman-ish way, some of his subjects appear for only a single brief scene, while some recur throughout, and they're certainly a broad selection: an aristocrat who hires his family home out for film shoots, paramedics, an eel fishermen, some transsexual prostitutes, and a man trying to stop insects from destroying palm trees.
The scenes—vignettes is probably the best term—are a mixed bag, as you might expect for something like this. Some, like those involving the tree researcher, are a little dry and eminently skippable, while others are funny, touching and even heartbreaking. One of the most offbeat and interesting sections involve the perpetually cigar-clutching aristocrat, whose home is a monument to bad taste and who dons a traditional cape to welcome visitors, which features some of the director's wryest images, while the paramedic, who's seen at work and at home, strikes an affecting figure.
Perhaps the film's most effective segment peeks "Rear Window"-style into the windows of a flat that overlooks the road, with inhabitants including a garrulous, hugely likable old man living with his daughter, and a bedroom DJ whose mum and sister pay little attention to his wheels of steel. Placing the camera outside the window feels more slice-of-life and less artificial than some of the other compositions, and the subjects feel less like they're performing for the camera. But it's quite a distinct feel from the rest of the movie, and one that embodies the film's biggest issue.
Namely, all the scenes, whether effective or not, don't really add up to all that much. There isn't much in the way of an overarching concern (troublingly, one of the few recurring thematic elements appears to involve a metaphorical fear of immigration, though maybe we're reading too much into it), with even the road of the title not really proving to be all that important in the grand scheme of things. Maybe with more time, as with Wiseman's four-hour "At Berkeley," which, unfortunately for "Sacro GRA," screened on the same day, Rosi might have built up more of a tapestry, something closer to a state-of-a-nation picture than a precis.
As it is, the 90-minute film feels shallow and, while Rosi has a good eye, not especially cinematic—like three episodes of a docusoap screened back to back. It's never a painful watch and it's full of little pleasures, but none of them linger much longer past the credits. Clearly, some disagree, including Bernardo Bertolucci and the rest of his Venice jury, but to us, this slight, minor film felt like an odd pick to win this year's Golden Lion. [C+]