Review: The Walls of Bergamo
- BERLINALE 2023: Stefano Savona’s documentary takes just the right distance to explore the collective grief of one of the cities worst hit by Covid-19
Bergamo was one of the first areas to be affected by Covid-19 and was one of the hardest hit by the pandemic in the world. In the late spring of 2020, Italian documentary-maker Stefano Savona left his home in Paris in order to film the crisis at its most challenging moment, just as he’d done for the occupation of Cairo’s Tahrir Square in February 2011 in his movie Tahrir Liberation Square [+see also:
film profile], and in Gaza, the day after the Israeli army’s bombings, via Samouni Road [+see also:
interview: Stefano Savona
film profile], which scooped the Golden Eye for Best Documentary at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Screened in the Berlinale’s Encounters section, The Walls of Bergamo [+see also:
interview: Stefano Savona
film profile] speaks of the throes of the pandemic – the long nightmare that it was, widespread death, deserted streets, intensive care units on the brink of collapse, staff who worked without respite, and the denial of last rites – but it mostly focuses on the aftermath, how people collectively processed those nightmare events once the city began to stir.
Savona arrives in this city with a population of 120,000 with a team of former students from Palermo’s Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia (Danny Biancardi, Sebastiano Caceffo, Alessandro Drudi, Silvia Miola, Virginia Nardelli, Benedetta Valabrega and Marta Violante) at a time when death is making its presence most felt. He films tormented bodies and faces covered with masks with maximum discretion. It’s hard to contain our emotions when we’re faced with such images, which we’ve assimilated in recent years, to some extent. Reduced to inert bodies by hypnotic drugs used to facilitate intubation, these people have since spoken about the long dreams they had, which actually brought back memories. In order to lend substance to these inner worlds and their imagery linked to the mountains, water and childhood, the director availed himself of Cinescatti, an archive founded in Bergamo which gathers together footage shot by amateur filmmakers between the 1930s and 1980s in 9.5mm, 8mm, Super8 and 16mm, and which ultimately represents the city’s collective memory.
But it’s the survivors who form the focus of the second half of the documentary - family members and the volunteers – thanks, no doubt, to the editorial efforts of Francesca Sofia Allegra, Davide Minotti and Sara Fgaier. They talk about their loved ones who fell victim to the virus, they vent feelings of guilt for having had to abandon them or simply for having survived, they express anger and frustration at the absurdity of not even being able to say goodbye or attend a funeral, and at the government’s simplistic “let’s get back to reality” attitude. We see varying levels of awareness and different stages in the grieving process, which become collective on the lawn in front of an ancient bastion of Bergamo’s city walls. “I’d like to give those people who have been reduced to numbers their humanity back”, says Roberta, an incredibly busy volunteer who also owns one of the city’s funeral homes.
Savona manages to lend unity to the various outlooks of eight filmmakers, a collective practice he experimented with over the course of three years at documentary film school. And he does so with the anti-rhetorical distance that such footage requires, whilst also maintaining a respectful physical distance with the camera. Certain viewers might feel overwhelmed by so much emotion and by listening to the many stories of death offered up over the film’s 136-minute duration. But, like the story of the GP who was killed by the virus after refusing to neglect his patients, these are tales which deserve to be inscribed in common memory.
The Walls of Bergamo is produced by Iervolino & Lady Bacardi Entertainment together with RAI Cinema. Distribution in Italy is entrusted to Fandango, while worldwide rights are managed by Fandango Sales.
(Translated from Italian)
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