Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jun 02, 2022 8:35 pm 
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Celebration of a Roman movie director who died without ever completing a film

In 2018 Mauro Fagioli died at the age of 47. For a long time he had been a recluse on the top floor of an apartment building ("palazzo" in Italian) in affluent Rome where he carried out his only activity, finishing the film of his dreams with material collected over a twenty-year period, hours and hours of peripatetic filming in which all his friends lent a helping hand. It's these same friends who're filmed gathering on the building's terrace to celebrate Fagioli's wake, remembering his unfinished task. Some of them have not seen each other for a dozen years, and they take this opportunity to revisit their common past and reconnect (or not). This film is a record of that reunion, of those people, and of Mauro and the many pieces of film he left dangling when he passed away.

The documentary by Federica Di Giacomo, already the author among other films of the 2016 Venice Orizzonti-prize exorcism documentary Liberami ("Set Me Free"), stands at an imaginary crossroads, suggests Paolo Casella in his review for MyMovies, (which I've borrowed from freely here), between Matteo Garrone's 2000 artist reunion film Estate Romana, James Franco's 2017 bad movie flick The Disaster Artist and Lawrence Kasdan's 1983 generational reunion classic The Big Chill, but recounted from within a specifically Roman world: that of aspiring filmmakers and the court that is created around them, as well as the sense of non-accomplishment some of those presently assembled also feel.

Gradually the cast of players is defined, though they appear casually, as in a film. There is a journalist who stubbornly demands the truth and calls Faggioli's work "meaningless delusions." There is the writer devoured by the bitter awareness of not having realized his own aspirations: but he is the co-author of this documentary, so he has finished something, even if he says he differs from Mauro only in still being alive. There is the disenchanted ironist who asks himself questions the audience will ask. There is the "crucifer" who has become the guardian of Fagioli's memory. Some of the men here live by expedients; one of them is a drunk. The women get down to work, but regret no longer being the beauties Fabioli's camera recorded as we see them in Mauro's much earlier film strips.

If these were fictional characters perhaps we would not understand their irresolution so well. But Di Giacomo, who was one of this original cohort herself, builds up the narrative arc of each of them in the editing, leaving room for surprises and revelations, only at the end partially reconstructing the puzzle of Fagioli's existence and his entourage. The director and co-writer manage to maintain a suspension of judgement, often colored by irony but never by derision, towards these characters, a number of whom seem "dedicated to failure." (There feels like something particularly Italian, perhaps even Roman about this. The cultural patrimony of Italy is overwhelming, and Mauro's terrace provides a view of the Vatican.)

There are meandering, almost Felliniesque segments, like the drunken amble on nighttime Roman streets, and the pair of women in elegant sun suits who go to the beach, only to have one of them announce she is fed up and is taking the Metro back. Now with a shock we see Mauro during his latter days. He had a vertebral problem and took heavy doses of cortisone and had become enormously, unnaturally fat. (Come to think of it, at this stage he could have been a Fellini extra himself.) We still don't know the cause of death, though.

In between some segments of film work only as disconnected vignettes. Perhaps they're like Mauro's except that they're recorded with live sound while he, we see, intended to dub his film in the traditional Italian style and so gives loud instructions during shoots, like the silent film directors, thereby getting to play the classic director role vividly, if in the end futilely. He shot himself directing these fragments, his performances.

With its meandering runtime Il Palazzo winds up not living up to its initial elegance and suggestiveness of the gathering of glamorous friends. Various segments involving the group after - or before - the terrace wake are too peripheral to the subject. Information about a man who owns apartments (in Mauro's building?) who sells them to finance art projects for the group is not quite clear. This gathering of scenes will make sense to the participants, but doesn't completely make sense to us.

Suppose Mauro hadn't had these physical problems and died at 47, would he have produced something? From the evidence provided, that's unlikely. He admits in one clip to having no interest in story or screenplay-writing: perhaps no interest in ever making a completed film. Maybe he was just saved by early death from the desultory old age his contemporaries will grow into. This film is the flavorful record of a small Roman community whose surroundings may be as oppressive as they are beautiful and gracious.

Unfinished/Il Palazzo, 100 mins., debuted Sept. 2021 at Venice Giornate degli Autori. Screened for this review as part of the FLC-Cinecittà series Open Roads: New Italian Cinema, shown June 9-15, 2022 at the Walter Reade Theater.

Sunday, June 12 at 2:15pm (Q&A with Federica Di Giacomo).

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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