by Ben Diamond
Sacro GRA (Rosi, 2013, 90m) is a film about space. Specifically, the space and spaces of the ‘no-place’, a purgatory of sorts – a no-man’s-land, clinging to the titular ‘GRA’ or ‘Grande Raccordo Anulare’, the ring road that surrounds Rome. It’s the counterpart to the glitzy and decadent, but equally soulless Rome depicted in The Great Beauty, with tarmac, rather than champagne, coursing through its veins.
It starts on the road itself, inside an ambulance, where a medic keeps an old man warm who has fallen into a canal, whilst the ambulance speeds its way along anonymous stretches of highway. The GRA itself is established as both a vessel for the business of death – the network through which ambulances ferry people to hospitals, and also a source of death in itself – later on, the paramedics attend a car crash that has occurred on the ring road, where the victim displays a morbid sense of humour, the scene itself a distillation of the internal machinery at work at the heart of the film – finding redemption, beauty, and humour underneath the noise and the mundanity.
Elsewhere, the people and scenes the film visits also explore the the concept of death, albeit in a more metaphysical, death-in-life way, the inhabitants of these places consigned to live out their days as lonely ghosts who seem to have absorbed their surroundings and as a result offer cryptic insights into what such a life does to you – how you develop a philosophy to deal with your lot. Sacro GRA is a documentary, but everything is carefully framed, set up, directed, premeditated. Characters rarely move in the frame, and their monologues, each a distinct vignette, are given added layers and meanings by the detritus that surrounds them. If they are accompanied by other people in a scene, they’re often not being listened to. Each person is a singularity, a law unto themselves. They are treated by the camera with dignity, but also with a coolness and sense of detachment.
I don’t know where the filmmakers found these people, but they are, without exception, fascinating. No questions are asked from behind the camera and no interviews as such occur, leaving an air of mystery as to each person’s circumstances, how they came to be who they are, what led them to do what they are doing. The GRA is depicted as a barren place, and it seems to have some mystical qualities which inexplicably draw people in and render them infertile, as is the case of the two tabletop dancers who perform at a horrible, unglamorous dive bar, scantily clad but distinctly unsexual and disinterested (the patrons of the bar seem fairly nonchalant about the whole business too), their dance having less to do with fertility, and more to do with money. Elsewhere we catch sex workers, but during their downtime, where their existence appears to have been nullified, purposeless and shooting the breeze in an existentialist, absurdist manner which would feel at home in one of the more banal moments of a Beckett play.
Such is the film’s insight and craft that waves of horror and creeping dread wash over you, without anything particularly horrifying or dreadful being revealed. In fact, such is the relentless exposure to death in all of its forms, both real and imagined, that it takes on a beauty all of its own. ‘Death is an artform’ might be this film’s manifesto. When inhabitants of flats look out of the window, they don’t find horror in other people, because there’s no-one around, just flats in the building opposite, with the lights on – but nobody home. Instead, the true angst comes from the wasteland, the empty space – and the ringroad beyond. Fenced out, but also fenced in.