Encircling Rome like a tightening lariat that threatens to flood the environs of the Italian capital with ghosts of its past and future, the Grande Raccordo Anulare is the focus of Gianfranco Rosi’s latest documentary. The surprise winner of the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival, a honour that shocked and angered many but the decision seems enlightened by a stubbornness that will drive many to investigate . Sacro GRA (2013) gravitates towards a humanism not often seen within Western Capitals and celebrates a honest strangeness that lies outside of everyone’s day to day sturm und drang… The GRA is a tollfree, ringshaped orbital motorway, 42 miles long.
Rosi claims he was inspired by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, in which Marco Polo is imagined describing his travels to emperor Kublai Khan. The filmmaker subsequently sweeps through these Roman surroundings pondering – via the individuals he locates – unasked questions of singular existence. Responses are observed from a prince and his family who rent their richly appointed home out to film crews, an eel fisherman who lives on the river with his middle-aged Ukrainian wife, or a poetic tree doctor lamenting the parasitic scourge of his beloved palms. At first Rosi’s claims on authorial companionship with Calvino seem grandiose and misplaced but one of the central claims of Invisible Cities is that, “The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death.”
There is the strength in what conjoins both Calvino’s novel, and Rosi’s enigmatic stroll through the high and lows of a modern discourse, with an Italian society usually superseded by cliche and wish fulfilment. Calvino talked about “the inferno of the living” and how it exists in the present . He discovered two ways to escape the suffering of the inferno: acceptance so as you become such a part of it that you can no longer see it; and secondly to seek and learn to recognize what are not the inferno, then make them endure and give them space. This duality is the red hued thread that centres Sacro GRA . People alike in many ways but separated by various societal markers, they breathe the air of Rome, it’s history and the existential fumes of the Grande Raccordo Anulare. This alone is not unique to Rome or Italy, London’s own Iain Sinclair has been strip mining this form of orbital psychogeography for years, most obviously concurrent with Sacro GRA ishis book London Orbital and the film of the same name directed by Chris Petit .
There is a danger that the focus on a ring road could be tinged with a Sisyphean curse, what with ring roads being a nonescape from nowhere at the same time as a forward movement of the damned, but Rosi is the antiBallardian. Whereas J. G. Ballard claimed in his provocative novel Crash that he wished “to rub the human race in its own vomit, and force it to look in the mirror”, Sacro GRA peers into a silent world and finds the unseen and unheard of its all encompassing vitality. That of the inbetween moments of driving that at once are like being awake and asleep at the same time, forgetting what is a dream and what is dreamlike, the slow monotony of a machine that envelopes you from your antagonistic surroundings means every passing car, passenger, home is another tale to tell yourself about life outside the cocoon.
D.W. Mault | @D_W_Mault