Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Nov 28, 2018 4:10 pm 
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Little old bureaucracy


Let's begin by referring to a review of Open to the Public by Gianpiero Paganelli for Quinlin. After wondering what complicity there may have been between the documentarian and the bureaucratic underlings depicted "How did he convince them to remain natural, to behave as usual, uninfluenced by the proximity a camera?" Did they not realize they were revealing the "evils" of a "slow bureaucracy" that gums up all Italian public affairs" he asks; but he also concludes that if Bellotti wanted to produce a satire, she wound up with something else.

What is it? A picture of desperation, meanness, petty efforts at kindness - a terrible quagmire, whose like exists, no doubt, in many other countries. It sometimes exists also in America. But Paganelli cites a famous American filmmaker: "Unlike a work by Frederick Wiseman, which captures the gears and mechanisms of the institutions it depicts," he writes, "Open to the Public is like a theater of the absurd, a grammelot (commedia dell'arte gibberish-talk), in which one does not understand what is happening, because the language used is such a total deconstruction of one we commonly use."

When I worked in Egypt, the local employees of the school where I worked took care of all bureaucratic operations for the faculty, which involved, of course, long years of familiar contacts, charm, smiles, cups of coffee, and baksheesh. When I worked at a wholly local school in Morocco, there were no facilitators provided. And as for baksheesh, it seemed that the bureaucratic underlings would much rather make life miserable for people than line their pockets.

That seems the case here. We are at the Autonomous Institute for Popular Houses of Naples. That appears to mean the public housing office, and it's responsible for running 40,000 units. The sea is right ouside, through a window. The joke is, the public can only come to seek documents or complain from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. What do the employees of the office do on the other days? Maybe nothing. Isn't that why people go to work in this kind of place? Or they sort through random piles of sometimes matching, sometimes motley files - whose function one knows is superseded by what's in the computer data bank, now the final authority.

In Egypt, with the facilitators, I never once entered the Mugamma, the Pentagon of downtown Cairo where files seemed to reside. In Morocco, I spent most of my year every afternoon with a friend, trying to get my car registered. If I filled out a yellow document, it turned out a pink one was what was needed. You had to take it to another building, or upstairs, and come back in a week. Similar instructions are dealt out by a lady named De Stefano at the Naples Autonomous Institute for Popular Houses.

Some individual cases emerge. A woman of Indian descent, though she speaks correct Italian (the Neapolitan dialect of some of the others you could cut with a knife), is living in a house with four children suffering from pulmonary diseases. The house is falling apart from rot from humidity. Repairing it will be a major operation. It will take several months, and they will have to live somewhere else. A man called Salvatore Graziano takes her in tow, and actually gets this process under way. At first she has no place to move, but says she'll live on the street if it gets the job done. Later, she and Salvatore meet up again, and she says she has many places they can stay, she just wants to know the date when it begins. Hopeful.

Many times the answer is "No." No, you are not a legal resident. No, you cannot be registered to live with your boyfriend. No. we cannot file that document here. No, no, no. That's the key word in the grammelot.

An old lady comes who complains that someone who lives upstairs on the twelfth floor has registered as living with her. As she is questioned, her story changes. The woman on the twelfth floor is a step-niece. And the old lady signed for her, some time ago. But she doesn't know what she did: she can't read or write. Is she inventing this for her amusement? Or is she confused? She is worried. But has she created the worry herself?

After a while, it emerges that one reason this isn't a simple satire is that the supplicants who come are partly, at least, to blame. Their affairs are a mess. They didn't keep proper track of the documents. Not that the documents would ever have been right, but still.

But in the end, Paganelli notes, "a clerk says to the people in the long line, with calm we will resolve all your problems. And we will also offer you a cup of coffee." It all may be stupendously muddled and inefficient. But it's all part of the culture.

Open to the Public/Aperti al pubblico, 60 mins., debuted in 2017 at the Florence Festival dei popoli, winning the popular prize (Premio del Pubblico), also showing in Sardinia, at the Jean Rouch Festival, Napoli Festival, Krakow, and Cartagena. (No IMDb page.) It was screened for this review as part of the 2018 San Francisco New Italian Cinema series, where it showed as the final event with The Call/La convocazione on 2 Dec. at 7:15 p.m.


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