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About Alberto

Woman in revolt: Rachel Kushner on Alberto Grifi and Massimo Sarchielli's Anna (1975)

"HOSPITALS, PRISONS, AND BARRACKS ARE LIKE THIS. Once you're in, you're screwed.... You're sick because you don't understand their medicine," says Vincenzo Mazza as he encounters, and diagnoses with astonishing clarity, the repressive nature of life in Italy for a proletarian like himself in the year 1972. He's a supporting real-life character in a film that primarily features a girl named Anna, whose last name no one seems to remember, or possibly they never knew it to begin with--never mind the fact that she is the point of absolute gravity and star of this nearly four-hour film, which bears her name and in which she, like Mazza, plays only herself.

In February 1972, Massimo Sarchielli, a professional actor living in Rome, had taken in Anna--sixteen years old, homeless, on drugs, and eight months pregnant--and let her stay at his apartment. He got the idea to make a film about her and called Alberto Grifi, by then an important figure in underground cinema (his Bruce Conner--like La Verifica Incerta, made with Gianfranco Baruchello in 1964, was considered a groundbreaking experiment with found footage). Grifi filmed reconstructions of Anna's past and of Sarchielli's initial encounters with her. "Where are you from?" Sarchielli asks her in one of these restagings, having approached an outdoor cafe table at which she's seated. "Cagliari," she says, which Sarchielli asks her to repeat, suggesting that impoverished Sardinia, of which Cagliari is the capital, is a bit off his radar.

These scenes take place where Anna had met Sarchielli, on the Piazza Navona--hangout spot for layabouts, loudmouths, capelloni (longhairs), and all manner of the Roman lumpen that Pasolini had once celebrated and fetishized but by 1972 condemned for not just their long hair but their ugliness. Anna, if the wrong gender for Pasolini's lost archetype, nevertheless refutes the filmmaker's theory that the Italian underclass had experienced an "anthropological mutation," a physiognomic degeneration brought on by consumer habits. In fact, she possesses the beatitude of a Renaissance Madonna, as the camera acknowledges, gazing at her with a dilated, Warholian persistence. With Anna, as with certain of Warhol's subjects we never heard from again, like Patrick Tilden-Close from Imitation of Christ, the electrifying presence of filmed beauty and the obsessive gaze itself form a vivid and mysterious historical record: of "stars" who exist purely as stars, leaving no trace of lives continued offscreen, outside their moment of celluloid fame. Their only record is their record on film. Almost unknown for the past thirty-six years outside the country where it was made, Anna contains within it, as if under lock and key, seemingly every seed and secret component of that mythical and explosive era, the 1970s in Italy. Newly restored by the Cineteca Nazionale and the Cineteca di Bologna, it was shown last year at the International Film Festival Rotterdam and at the Venice International Film Festival, where it had screened originally in 1975, and it also appeared this past spring at Tate Modern, in conjunction with the retrospective of Alighiero Boetti, whose own work in the '70s directly addressed Italy's political upheaval.

This restoration and revival are in keeping with the groundswell of interest in Italy's creeping May. Anna, in fact, uniquely illuminates a historical moment that is germane to such contemporary phenomena as Occupy, European anti-austerity movements, and maybe even the Arab Spring, and yet is still little understood. We should therefore be grateful to the contingencies of fate, which, for many years, seemed to vacillate between bringing Anna back to public light and consigning it to the dustbin. After traveling the '70s festival circuit from Berlin to Venice to Cannes, it fell into obscurity for unclear reasons (there is speculation that the film was taken out of circulation due to potential legal complications stemming from Anna's minor status). Edited down from eleven hours of footage, Anna was the first film in Italy to be made on an open-reel video recorder (it was later transferred to 16 mm with the use of a machine, the vidigrafo, that Grifi invented), and the format proved crucial to the movie's unfolding. As Grifi explains in an introductory sequence (curiously absent from the restored print), video changed his relation to and representation of time. Time was no longer money, as with costly film, but something else: It was a matrix through which a filmmaker could at last move without restraint, capturing not just the quieter, seemingly insignificant moments of life but entire inconsequential stretches. In her relation to the filmmakers, Anna was afforded time and leisure, because she was no longer on the street. And the camera had time and leisure to observe her, due to video's low cost. But as anthropologists understand, to observe is to contaminate, and in this case, Grifi and Sarchielli were not merely observers. They presented themselves as their subject's saviors.

THE PLOT--THE "RESCUE" OF ANNA--was originally conceived by Grifi and Sarchielli in the spirit of direct cinema, along the lines of Jean Rouch's Chronicle of a Summer (1961) and Chris Marker's Le Joli Mai (1963), and the Neorealist concept of "tailing" as developed by screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, whom Grifi considered a spiritual mentor. But the directors quickly discarded their own script and let their interactions with Anna guide what the film would be, namely, a social experiment closer in a sense to Marker's 1968 A bientot, j'espere (Be Seeing You) (co-directed with Mario Marret), which documented the formation of class consciousness in striking textile-factory workers in Besancon, France. Anna chronicles its title character's pregnancy and circumstances and, reflexively, its own fraught production-- and that is the sum total of the narrative, such as it is. Much of the long run time is given over to documentary interviews with various people on the Piazza Navona, each of whom weighs in with an opinion on Anna's situation. One young woman explains that the unions, like the Communist Party, won't help Anna because she isn't suitably proletarian--she's neither clean nor married nor employable. The young men say she's an untamable bitch. "She needs her head smashed in," says the one she identifies as her boyfriend. The only bourgeois person interviewed in the film, a lawyer, says with an amused air that it's against the law to take in a minor. She'd be better off in an institution (even as he says that he himself "prefers shotguns to institutions"). Or perhaps, he suggests, they can baptize the baby right there in the Bernini fountain on the square, and his companions all laugh.

Through these voices, Italy's ferment is heard. Anna was made on the heels of the "hot autumn" of 1969 and 1970, with its massive strikes at the big factories in the North and the deadly bombing by fascists of Piazza Fontana in Milan. This crime was wrongly blamed on an anarchist, Pietro Valpreda, whose imprisonment is discussed by the people who hang around in the Piazza Navona, almost all of whom have spent time in prison themselves, for charges they suggest are indirectly political (even Grifi had recently been in prison). The first warrants in connection with the leftist militant Red Brigades, an organization born at the Pirelli tire plants, had taken place a year earlier, in 1971. By 1972 the climate in Italy was repressive, and the people in the Piazza Navona joke that "out of every ten of us, there are eight policemen or spies."

All of them are from either Rome or southern Italy and embody a culture that has no real historical relationship to industrial labor, to the North and its factories. They're an early iteration of the critical drift, in Italy, from factory-based struggles to a loose countercultural rejection not just of unions and traditional Left parties but of work. By 1977 this attitude would express itself as the impulse to stare insieme--to stay together and build a new life, operating against the reproduction of the class structure and pursuing the fulfillment of desires and needs that couldn't be met within the given state of affairs. ("The grass I want," as the slogan went, "doesn't grow in the king's garden.") The denizens of the piazza declareflippantly that they're artists. "Make a painting, and Agnelli [the head of Fiat' will buy it for one million!" one young woman kids. They speak a confusing and borderline-incoherent language, but one that is, within its specific and dire context, logical: They talk about revolution, violence, despair.

Unlike such ruffians, the Besancon workers in Marker's A bientot, j'espere have properly proletarian desires: to go home and eat lunch with their wives, to have lives outside the factory. Such workers had even taken control of the filmic apparatus via the cinema collective SLON (Societe pour le Lancement des Oeuvres Nouvelles), cofounded by Marker in 1967, in effect passing from object to subject and ultimately sharing producer credit with Marker. Anna, by contrast, isn't properly subjectivizable. Not only is she subproletarian and Sardinian, she's a girl who has trouble even wanting to live. A dark and hyperbolic anticipatory figure of the movement about to crest, she tells everyone to fuck off. Tries to make phone calls with the receiver upside down. Is sometimes catatonic. Isn't a participant when the camera tracks the women's march in the Campo de' Fiori, where Jane Fonda fleetingly crosses the frame (in the same year--surely not by coincidence--that Fonda "crosses the frame" in the Dziga Vertoy Group's Tout va bien and Letter to Jane). The women chant that the wife is the proletarian of the family--a privileged problem that has little to do with the concerns of someone like Anna, who, to extrapolate from that formulation, would be something like the lumpen of the orphanage.

And in fact she's just that. Orphanages were her early introduction to extrafamilial institutions, and institutions are what Anna, who bears on her wrists the marks of numerous suicide attempts, has recently escaped. She has spent her life in and out of them and knows intimately what the lawyer who "prefers shotguns" is pretending to call aid in suggesting she be returned to one. Nuns rubbed stinging mustard all over her for wetting the bed when she was five, she explains, and whipped girls "of one or two years old." In Anna, institutions--mental hospital, delivery ward, jail--demarcate actual and symbolic limits and horizons in a totalizing way. The film, its continuity with the world it depicts, renders itself, in a sense, similarly totalizing for both its subject and its makers, whose lives are embedded in it and not separate from the film's delimited terrain. And for Anna, the film is her only viable option. She's lucky to be staying with Sarchielli, a disheveled late-thirties-ish bachelor who looks after her, albeit with creepy solicitude, copping a feel on occasion and at one point delighting in the stream of milk she squeezes at him from her full breasts. But given that her only other option is the streets, she has little practical choice in whether to stay with him and in whether to tolerate the making of this film, whose verite form relies on her vitality and her dissolution, in equal measure, as mesmerizing agent.

GRIFI AND SARCHIELLI weren't attempting to politicize her. They seem to hold out no hope of empowering Anna through the act of filming her. By the end of Marker's A bientot, j'espere, a dialectical process of self-inscription has taken place that allows Marker, as filmmaker, to disappear. The Besancon workers form their own cinema collective, the Medvedkin Group, and by the time of the wildcat strikes of May 1968 are behind the camera, filming. Anna, by contrast, is only a specimen, a "guinea pig," as Grifi referred to her twenty years later, in an interview in which he acknowledged the film's "poorly concealed sadism." But in some ways Anna is less guinea pig than ghost, a symptom of the shift in the composition of the Italian Left, from the material conditions of the working class to a world of hippies, students, precarious workers, drug addicts, and other emarginati who would come to constitute the movement of 1977.

Anna's first act of revenge as guinea pig: She gives the entire crew lice. But this only brings on humiliation and paternalism, as Sarchielli forces her to strip naked and shower, berating her for having dirty feet; at one point, the camera zeros in on her fingers absentmindedly playing with her own pubic hair, as if she were a gorilla at the zoo. While the crew deals with the lice problem, the film's electrician "leaves his post and enters the field," an intertitle announces. The electrician, it turns out, is Vincenzo Mazza, whose own views on institutions are quoted above. A twenty-one-year-old former Pirelli employee who had participated in the famous strikes at Bicocca steps in front of the camera and declares his love for Anna. This moment, and the romantic relationship that ensued, Grifi later spoke of as an act of revolt on the part of both Anna and Vincenzo. Anna, Grifi said, "wanted love, not pity" (although it isn't clear that pity was what the filmmakers were offering, unless it was a cruel, Nietzschean pity). Vincenzo, at the bottom of the cinematic hierarchy, was, according to Grifi, taking control of the apparatus by stepping in front of the camera, acting not out of the conditions of his role but from desire. Like the Autonomist movement that was about to unfold--joyous and incredible, but beset by the depredations of heroin and prison--Vincenzo's declaration is both moving and ominous. One senses it might end badly.

As if to confirm that the logic of the film is folded perfectly around the historical conditions of its subject, Anna has the baby on the day of a general strike. In what could be called her second act of revenge, she refuses the filmmakers access to the hospital. If up until this point the tireless video recorder has been an instrument of the directors' power, here it, and they, are brought up short. We never again see her on film. "This girl's busted our asses," one of the intimate circle of regulars from the Piazza Navona says. Grifi observes: "It's clear that she screwed us over, from a film director's point of view." A discussion ensues about Anna's exploitation. "You used her fully until the end," one woman says, "and now you're angry."

They interview Vincenzo outside the hospital, in front of a wall of political slogans declaring the strike. He tells them, smiling, that the baby is a girl. What are your plans? Grifi asks. "I don't know," he says dreamily. "It's spring, then summer will come." The film cuts to Vincenzo again, hours later; the pediatrician has taken the baby because Anna is a minor and still has lice. With no guardian or husband, she cannot legally claim the child. Vincenzo, distraught, delivers a concise, poetic, and grim analysis of the situation, of a child born where "they only teach suffering ... violence and all the rest," in a system of hospital workers who "end up not knowing themselves either, let alone others."

At the end of the film is another interview with Vincenzo, a year later. He is alone with the child, Anna having abandoned both of them. He says a woman chastised him for requesting help watching the baby while he worked, told him children are a man's responsibility, that Anna did the right thing by leaving. While the women's movement was surely the most successful and lasting change wrought by Italy's convulsive '70s, the significance of Anna's refusal, her departure, baffles Vincenzo, even as he feels that the woman who reproved him is right. Anna's no, he says, should be a revolutionary no. Instead, he says, it is resignation and death, "a refusal of life and love." Vincenzo has experienced firsthand an aspect of Anna's particular "emancipation"--she isn't mentally suited to be anyone's subordinate, much less wife--but he can't see that a life-affirming and revolutionary no makes as little sense for her as it would for her to march with Fonda in the square. Anna is an avatar of another feminism altogether, a form of no that comes at the cost of everything, including her own child. He's despondent, and it's tough to witness. But don't worry about poor Vincenzo Mazza; he was murdered four years later anyway, in the Campo de' Fiori, as I discovered by accident reading old copies of Lotta Continua, a widely circulating extra parliamentary leftist newspaper of the era. He had intervened in a violent struggle between a man and a woman and was stabbed. His killer, the brother of famous spaghetti-western actor Gian Maria Volonte, then hung himself in the same Roman prison, Regina Coeli, where Grifi had been incarcerated.

AND ANNA? WHAT BECAME OF HER? The filmmakers, both no longer living, would never say. The last time they heard from her, Grifi later recounted, was while they were editing the film. She called, crying, from a mental hospital in Rome. Begged them to rescue her and also threatened to have them arrested for filming a minor. "All we knew to do," Grifi said, "was to record the phone call." In the intervening years between making Anna and his death in 2007, Grifi was by turns reflective and defensive, blaming the 1975 audience at Venice for caring more about Anna on-screen than Anna in a mental hospital, and even declaring that this spectatorship itself turned the audience into the police--when it might be argued that the form of the film he and Sarchielli made, with its chorus of judging strangers, its strip-search shower scene, induced just this effect. Sarchielli was more ambivalent about whether he and Grifi had exploited Anna, though they apparently parted ways not over ethical disagreements but over the usual, banal problem: authorship (the Italian press treated the film as Grifi's alone).

The Italian 1970s keep returning, it seems, more than a decade since the peak of the antiglobalization movement and the publication of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire (that work's efforts to efface its links with Italy notwithstanding), both of which sparked an excavation of Autonomist strategies in intellectual and activist circles. In the past five years, Semiotext(e) has republished its exhaustive collection of documents of the era, Autonomia: Post-political Politics (2007), as well as Tiqqun's This Is Not a Program (2011), which recasts the hot autumn and the movement of '77 according to that collective's own analysis and critique, while Verso has just republished Nanni Balestrini's bleak and brilliant The Unseen, which many consider to be the novel of the movement. The Unseen could not have been written, so the story goes, without the firsthand accounts of Sergio Bianchi, who lived the harrowing experiences that Balestrini describes. If Autonomia referred initially to a withdrawal from all forms of organized Left politics and, in particular, from the Communist Party, it would also come to connote an autonomous subject, one whose thought and actions transpire without the determinative influence of the state. Any movement or action called Autonomist is really an endlessly complex mesh and flux of various individuals coming together at various points for various reasons. To summarize Autonomia, then, is to banalize it. In this sense, testimonials by the individuals involved are crucial to analyzing and reconstructing this unique era of revolt, and Anna supplies a singular wealth of them, in all their coded and antecedent poignancy.

Even the film's own formal precepts--its dramatizations of real-life events, and the ghostly effect of its transfer from early video to 16-mm film, which communicates a once-removed quality--become unwitting aspects of Anna's singularity, now, as a most curious time capsule, part graveyard, part glass menagerie. The film conforms to neither cinema verite's reflexive recognition of its own capturable moments for direct cinema's claims to neutrality. The makers of Anna seem to think they are capturing the problem of Anna, not the seeds of revolt that are so palpable in the film or the filmmakers' own issues with the nihilism that lurks around the work's edges, in a vacillation between possibly productive anger and darker outcomes: Some of Anna's subjects would surely go on to become militants in Rome's Autonomia Operaia, while others would succumb to heroin addiction, and one can assume that by the end of the '70s most of the characters who ramble on camera wound up either fugitives, imprisoned, or dead--in any event, in places where no one would be filming them.

In the original credits provided for Anna's screening in Venice, every last character who walks through the frame--even cameos Louis Waldon and Fonda, who is seen for less than ten seconds--gets full credit. But Anna, on whom the camera focuses for most of the film's 225 minutes? Only a first name. Nothing else. If this omission reads as an index of her flight from institutions (or attempt at such), it adds, considerably, to the mystery of her fate. And if such a question, her fate, is a bit naive and crude, the film is nonetheless structured around it--as long as the question remains unanswerable. The film's object of fascination--what fades to merely a desperate voice on the phone--is its own sacrifice. Then again, the unanswerable question is Anna's third and final act of revenge: a fugitive retreat into invisibility and anonymity, a kind of renunciation that cannot be recuperated, pitied, objectified, stared at, or upheld as the angelic (or at least formally innovative) work of others. The disappearance, a pure one--no one seems to have any idea what happened to Anna, or to the child she had off camera--is her own.


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