Daniel Kemény’s Sòne is a visual and aural treat for the viewer, and for the director marks an emotional return to the Italian village of his childhood, one whose population has diminished from 2000 to 200 over past decades.
The Calabrian village of Pietrapaola is tiny and idyllic and protected by a vast, almost mountainous, rock that is itself couched in mythology. But the village is also silent, and by and large deserted. There is no longer music there, and nobody left, it seems, to tell its story.
The first thing that the director does on arrival is to call the names of the villagers whom he has long known (Mario, Giovanni, Luigi). But he is met with silence. And where is the sound of the post bus, he asks. Or the buzz of the ice cream fridge when its door is left open. Or even the cicadas.
But little by little, the sounds return. With a cinematic flourish, Kemény unleases thousands of orange footballs that cascade down the steep cobbled streets of the village. Then a uniformed musical conductor appears in a small square onto which windows open up to reveal musicians carrying brass instruments, each awoken by an invocation to again play their scales and arpeggios.
Then we begin to meet the townfolk who decide, over the course of the film’s 75-minute duration, to engage with Kemény in this process of reawakening.
“I come more from the art field, so I tend to represent with images more than words,” explains the director. “So my creative impulse is [governed] by my love for symbolic absurdity. This is my way of expressing my personal feelings and also my relationship with the people of the town. The people were doing it with me and they believed in what I was doing, and this made it possible to create these magical moments. I was giving them this creative part that you have in big cities, big places where creative minds gather, so I was bringing a bit of Berlin to Pietrapaola probably.”
Throughout the film, produced by Michela Pini, sound and music serve to provide poignant counterpoint to Kemény’s visuals. A fascinating sequence of a man working an ancient grape press is rendered even more sensual by the musical turning of its metal parts. A cassette-loving 87-year old folk singer must think hard before finally leaving the place that he serenaded for decades with his ‘strike’ guitar. Another man communicates across the village by slapping his ample belly, while a montage of villagers at work is accompanied by a heart-breaking love song. (The film is dedicated to its sound operator Christophe Giavannoni, who died in 2019.)
The director further describes a very simple event that for him has particular resonance, and captures a personal aesthetic that seeks to combine sound and image. On returning to the village years ago, he was standing before his house and a leaf audibly passed his ear before settling beside him on the ground. Like Everett Sloane’s fleeting and ancient memory, in Citizen Kane, of a young woman stepping off a ferry, the memory of the leaf always remained with Kemény.
A tragic tale is told in the film, that of the village story-teller who would narrate and invent tales for hours within bars and on the streets, who was murdered moments after collecting his pension, his body dumped and left undiscovered for three weeks.
“I wanted to tell this story, because this man was the last man, the last story-teller, inventing histories but with a narrative knowledge from thousands and thousands of years ago. He was my guy in the beginning, because he knew about music, he knew how to play and he knew how to dance. I needed to tell his story.”
In relaying this tragic tale Kemény deploys the considerable talents of his mother’s husband (a neighbour of the murdered man), intercutting with carnival images as the weeping villagers parade a shrouded effigy through the streets. “He knew him really well. You see in the scene how his eyes start to cry. They hated each other but they loved each other, so this mode of representation had a real truth inside.”