In Le grand viveur, a film that proves that cinema is first and foremost a visual medium, Perla Sardella delivers a beautiful and elegiac (and ostensibly silent*) portrait of a mysterious filmmaker from the past.
During the 1960s and 70s, life in the tiny mountainous Piedmontese village of Rimasco was recorded by a hitherto unknown filmmaker by the name of Mario Lorenzini.
It’s hard to know at first what kind of character he cuts, as we know so little about him, but his general absence from the frame offers up some clues. People are obviously comfortable in his presence as he gets his camera right into the thick of the action, whether it’s shaving a recently slaughtered pig or during the many village celebrations (which entail a lot of drinking and a lot of dancing). What is deliciously telling, is that when he shoots a table of four al fresco lunch diners, a fifth place is prepared for him.
He also seems to be a man’s man. He shoots men of action; hunting, fishing, shooting and farming. Life in the village is bucolic, at times bacchanalian and infused with a sense of vigour. Women are portrayed in a more domestic setting and even, at times, decoratively. “Like Cassavetes, he had an extraordinary ability to portray the neuroses of male bodies and the exclusion of female ones,” Sardella says in the Carte Blanche introduction she made for the festival’s online world premiere.
The backdrop is invariably alpine, and therefore fabulous, and the archive footage has been pre-edited and professionally captioned (by the filmmaker himself).
Then we experience two jarring moments. As the camera pans away from the extraordinary Matahorn, we hear that Lorenzini died, probably drunk, in the cold when walking in the mountains.
And then we see footage of the man himself, bearded, athletic and obviously attractive to the villagers, men and women alike, wearing mountain clothes, and not quite the odd and aloof character we have come to expect.
“I worked with the Super-8 home movie Archivio Superottimisti in Torino, and the Giulio, the guy who was presenting the footage, suddenly showed me the image of Mario out of the blue, and it was like a shot for me to see him after seeing all of the material. I wanted to re-create that same feeling [for the viewer] when they see the film,” explains director Sardella.
The Visions du Réel notes for the film suggest that the film works as a love letter to a filmmaker long dead. Sardella disagrees with this interpretation… until she thinks it through.
“I never thought it was a love letter, you know… but in a way it actually is,” she admits. “I feel like Mario a little bit, being a filmmaker and filming others to find a sort of connection with them, so it was almost like a letter to myself also, but I prefer the love letter. It’s nicer. It surprised me.”
What also surprised Sardella was how an archive such as this (only three hours of footage, but apparently Lorenzini shot a lot more which may yet be unearthed at some point in the future) should ever exist in the first place.
“As you can see, these villages are really remote, so it wasn’t that easy to find cinematic equipment and to develop your films, and he was also editing them, so it’s like he had a whole studio maybe in the mountains. It was kind of amazing to see that,” says Sardella. “Also to see that kind of material. It’s really beautifully shot. You don’t find it very often in home movies, which are usually made by amateurs shooting families and lunches and weddings and birthday cakes.”
Sardella tells how she returned to the village in 2019 where the spirit of celebration was as alive as it is in the film. There were few people who remembered him and those that did perpetuated the notion (one whose validity she seriously questions) that he was an outsider, a bit odd, and therefore ignored. For Sardella, however, this represents a dream scenario, for a documentary filmmaker to be able to go about his/her business totally ignored. Is this something she feels able to achieve?
“It’s impossible, I think that the only person that did it is Mario. He was the ‘odd guy’ from the village, you know, the person that people would not normally not have a relationship with, because he was ‘strange’, that’s what they told me. I don’t know if that’s entirely true. So you know, he was in the corner, and also he had a Super 8 camera, and that’s something that people wouldn’t be surprised about. They just thought, ‘oh that’s just Mario being Mario, he’s always been strange, so let’s keep it that way’, so people wouldn’t even notice him.”
Sardella herself engages in a bit of detective work as she counts out (via text on screen) the five times that Lorenzini points the camera at a particular woman in one scene, finally focussing on her legs. She poses a question which is of course unanswerable, as to whether or not this offers a glimpse into his personal life, which his other footage patently avoids doing. “He is this anthropological or ethnographical filmmaker, [offering] much detail about his subjects, but in that case it was very clear that he was fixating on her,” she says.
In her Carte Blanche, Sardella speaks movingly of how, in the middle of corona lockdown, the film’s images of “those bodies dancing, close, make me melancholic.” And even though she vows to eliminate any sense of nostalgia when assessing her film, she stresses how “the sudden romanticisation of Mario’s images surprised me very much. I didn’t think I could find something unseen in things I have seen at least a million times.”
“For a moment I allow myself to think about what I will have to return to when this isolation is over,” she ponders.
* the soundscape of the film replicates a movie projector but varies in intensity throughout, and sometimes you can almost hear distant songs and voices, “as if ghosts are present,” says Sardella. It was designed by the musival duo i Conniventi.