Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Nov 28, 2018 4:07 pm 
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Jury duty, Italian style

In Italy, as in America, there is jury duty. It begins with the selection of the jurors. This is the process mainly focused on in Enrico Maisto's short documentary. We are in Milan, the Assize Court of Appeal. They deal with big stuff, murder, mafia, terrorist acts. There are two judges, and the chosen jurors, actually known as giudici popolari, "popular judges," are six, and sit beside them, three on each side, and confer with the judges, arriving at decisions collectively.

Someone remarks that the courtroom style, no doubt with the mosaic mural decorations in mind, are an example of the grandiose look of the fascists that appealed to Mussolini. Couldn't it just be the Italian manner? Italian public spaces tend to be grand and widely proportioned, and such is the case of the Italian Court of Assizes of Milan. Anyway, here they are all are, called to do their civic duty, serve justice, if they can, and maybe have an interesting time. This is their emotional first contact. Someone refers to "Sironi," Luca Sironi, whose photo-essay showing the ruthless architecture of deserted Italian courtrooms is, apparently, well-known.

The film spies on some of the sixty assembled prospective jurors skillfully. The camera, unnoticed, is tight on faces of the men and women, and the microphone, unseen, gathers up a seamless blend of interesting snatches of their conversations. There are a host of feelings and thoughts. At first there is grousing about time lost from work, even of how hard it was to find the court. There are fears, that they may not be up to the task, that their involvement may put their lives in jeopardy. The latter the female judge conducting proceedings doesn't totally allay. First she says the accused are behind bars, so can't do them any harm. Then she admits that many of the accused are linked with the mafia and jokes that if there were danger, the court would all be dead by now. Some are concerned at losing money. One well-dressed gentleman says he has lost fifteen hundred euros just by being away from work this day, though, he adds later, with a smile, luckily the business can function without his presence. Others talk about how essential work, or the lack of it, will determine their serving, or not - or the caring for a sick mother. One lady, with bushy gray hair, says she does not work, and she can do the juror's job, and would like to.

We don't know how the "popular judges" are chosen, but the comment of a judge about this film (an approving one) notes that at this opening encounter it's important to learn if the candidates are disposed to "administer justice with passion (and hence, commitment), or with indifference and annoyance." Part of the annoyance might come from the fact that in Italy the potential jurors are summoned at home not by a postcard, as in America, but by a home visit from the carabinieri.

In time, conversation turns to growing enthusiasm for the task, doing one's civic duty, learning about the law, just hearing interesting stuff. Ladies also talk about their future plans, when they are not working, other jobs they'd do. Volunteer in a prison? No, the bushy haired lady , now a chosen juror, says, she'd rather work in a library.

It's repeatedly made clear that only the jurors' "common sense" is required, no special knowledge. On the other hand, they may have to read many pages of court documents about previous trials now being reassessed. And by the way, however long individual trials run, jurors serve for three months. One gets a sense that a more unified culture and a higher level of education is assumed here, and that's evidenced by the dialogue we witness. The chosen jurors and alternates are also each called upon to read aloud what sounds like a pretty sophisticated statement of their pledged duties and responsibilities - ending in a promise of confidentiality.

What's not clear is the way the trial will proceed, and even the specific details of jury selection. In the courtrooms where I've been called to jury duty, you have the judge, the jury, and the lawyers for the court and the defense. Each potential juror is asked basic questions pertaining to his or her background and relation to the case and those involved, and the lawyers are allowed a certain number of dismissals. Here, the potential jurors are called away to another room where the questioning goes on unseen by the rest of those called in, or by us. Presumably only the two judges make the choices, since we see no lawyers.

A review of the other documentary shown at the New Italian Cinema series, about a government office's bureaucratic functioning, compares it to a film by Frederick Wiseman, which, it says, "captures the gears and mechanisms of the institutions," whereas the Italian one "seems like a theater of the absurd." Well, of course, we realize, the reach and influence of Wiseman's prodigious oeuvre must be global, and we can feel it in how these two films are constructed.. But what limits this one is that its camera doesn't move as Wiseman's would to the other rooms to observe other parts, even the most trivial, of the court's work, not to mention the crucial one of jury selection . But within its limitations, Maisto's documentary is humane and fascinating, and a civic lesson too.

The "convocation" filmed here took place in 2015. Rather astonishingly, the end notes tell us, the jurors called up met for the last time "to pronounce the sentence 22 July 2015 for the massacre of Brescia that took place in the Piazza della Loggia 28 May 1974." This was a reconsideration of a previous case that was reconsidered before, and the charges dismissed. This time Carlo Maria Maggi, leader of the far right organization Ordine Nuovo, and Maurizio Monte, collaborator of the secret services, were sentenced to life imprisonment. It was announced to the jurors at the outset that new testimony from a "pentito" (a "Years of Lead" terrorist who turned state's witness) was going to be heard in the 1974 bombing in the main square of the city of Brescia. Big stuff - forty years later.

The Call/La convocazione, 56 mins., showed at Milan, and in documentary festivals in Tremblay-en-France, Toronto (Hot Docs), Linz, Florence, Budapest, Munich, Široki Brijeg (Bosnia), and at DMZ Docs, South Korea. Theatrical release in Italy began 15 Jan. 2018. It was screened for this review as part of the 2018 San Francisco New Italian Cinema series, where it showed at 7:15 p.m. 2 Dec.


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