A collection of brilliant shorts, a classic of fiction, some lesser-known documentary gems and a few cinematic masterpieces that straddle the border between the two—the ten films chosen by IDFA’s Guest of Honor Gianfranco Rosi reflect his extensive and unique relation to cinema. So does the process through which this compendium of 10 films came about, as IDFA’s artistic director Orwa Nyrabia and senior programmer Raul Niño Zambrano recount.
“I can’t magically come up with ten film titles, I can’t even remember that many films,” was Gianfranco Rosi’s initial response when Orwa Nyrabia, IDFA’s artistic director, told him that—as a guest of honor—he had to compile a Top 10. “It says a lot about what cinema means to him. The films he watches do not turn into lists in his mind; he experiences them and they become part of his own experience if they’re good. He is not one to pick ten titles and then methodically discuss the mechanics of choosing them,” says Nyrabia.
Pressed by Nyrabia and senior programmer Raul Niño Zambrano, Rosi came up with Los olvidados (1950) by Luis Buñuel. The first time he had seen this bleak drama about destitute children in a Mexico City slum, he was so impressed that he went to see it again the next day and it has stayed with him ever since. However, it’s not a documentary, but a widely recognized masterpiece of fiction. “That’s typical for Rosi’s attitude towards film,” states Nyrabia. “He chooses to make documentary films because he considers them a meaningful, political commitment, because according to him, that is what today’s world needs. But when looking at film, he doesn’t distinguish between fiction and documentary.”
When Nyrabia went on to question him about what had shaped him as a filmmaker, Rosi answered, “Roberto Rossellini.” Initially, he didn’t name any specific film by the prominent Italian neorealist. “Instead, he first suggested Il mio metodo (My Method, 1987), the book in which Rossellini explains his methods. Rosi calls it his bible.”
In the end, he selected two films from the period when Rossellini started making documentary films: Francesco, giullare di Dio (1950) and India: Matri Bhumi (1959). Like Los olvidados, these films belong to a long-gone era and might be taxing for contemporary audiences, especially Francesco, giullare di Dio, which features real monks acting out Saint Francis’ life. “There’s little room for films like these on the increasingly commercialized festival circuit,” admits Nyrabia. “But IDFA’s Top 10 is one of the few arenas left for such classics to be rediscovered.”
Besides that, the Top 10 also functions as a kind of portrait of the festival’s guest of honor, akin to the way books or artworks on a living room wall reflect the preferences and priorities of the person who collected them. In that sense, Rosi’s selection of Robert Kramer’s Route One/USA (1989) is highly significant. And its selection pleased Nyrabia immensely. “If I had to compile a Top 10 this would be the first title I would suggest. It’s indisputably a documentary film, but is also built around an actor, a character called ‘Doc’ who also appears in other films by Kramer and who can be seen as his alter ego. Together they go on a trip across America, from one fragment of reality to the next.”
“Rosi picked this film because of the artistic freedom Kramer displays in constructing a fictional link between those fragments of reality. He’s no purist, nor is he scared of being accused of being untrue. Applying the scientific definition of truth to cinema would imply that acting can’t yield truth, that imagination can’t provide truth. Rosi met Kramer some years after he had made Route One/USA. He told me Kramer was the mentor he had been looking for his entire life. But soon after, Kramer died and he was without a mentor once again.”
Rosi isn’t only influenced and inspired by historical predecessors; he admires some of his contemporaries as well. For his Top 10, he also put forward Pietro Marcello, a filmmaker whose modus operandi is very different from his own. Marcello’s strength is being able to create a consistent, engaging world around his characters that draws the audience in despite its often unorthodox nature. This definitely holds true for La bocca del lupo (2009), which recounts the relationship between a gruff, macho man who went to prison and the heroin-addicted trans woman who waited for him all those years.
Halfway through compiling his Top 10, Rosi got stuck. While communicating with Nyrabia and Niño using WhatsApp video, what they glimpsed in the background of the director’s studio apartment in Rome turned out to be a library of art and philosophy books on subjects ranging from Modigliani to the Frankfurter Schule, and a large number of DVDs. Together they started going through Rosi’s collection. “A wonderful journey,” Nyrabia calls it. “Rosi’s taste is not limited or even guided by traditional categorizations or aesthetic conventions. It covers a very wide range of cinema.”
One surprise find was 48 (2010). “Susana de Sousa Dias is an archive documentary specialist, one of the best in the world. But her films are not commercial hits. She’s always present, but never at the center of the cinematographic arena. Rosi saw her film at a festival and it became part of his very selective collection.”
Rosi’s choice of A Bigger Splash (1973) struck Nyrabia as peculiar. “I didn’t remember it as special and had to re-watch it to understand why it had stuck in Rosi’s mind.” Only then did he recognize the playfulness of the re-enactment—by painter David Hockney and friends—of a key period in his career. Still, Nyrabia harbored political, rather than artistic reservations against Jack Hazan’s film because of Hockney’s recently questioned ethics. But Rosi responded laughingly, “I didn’t select A Bigger Splash because of Hockney or his life but because of the film itself. It’s uncompromising, goes back and forth in style, and sometimes steps out of reality altogether.”
While further dipping into his memories, Rosi encountered the Italian cinema he grew up with. Ten Shorts (1954-1959) by Vittorio De Seta has recently been restored and is a prime example of the director’s visual sketchbook. These compact vignettes of life in the Italian countryside immediately after World War II have neither story line nor dialogue, but parts of them are recognizably inserted into De Seta’s fictional debut Banditi a Orgosolo (1961). “De Seta worked within mainstream cinema and had to comply with the rules of the market,” according to Nyrabia. “But these side projects gave him freedom.”
Rosi’s Top 10 is rounded out by Anna (1975). This little known, four-hour film documents filmmakers Alberto Grifi and Massimo Scarchielli’s interaction with a 16-year old pregnant girl they encounter on the streets of Rome. “But it captures the zeitgeist,” says Nyrabia. “It is a feminist film by two men and it’s very observational and sincere.”
The self-conscious way the protagonists in Anna interact with the camera brings to mind the repentant masked cartel killer in Rosi’s own El Sicario, Room 164 (2010). But according to Nyrabia, Rosi’s interaction with cinematic history runs deeper than mere stylistic imitation. “He studies the other directors’ methodologies and is inspired by examples who deviate from the rulebook. He made a 90-minute film about a single character whose face is covered all the time—that goes against all conventions. But maybe he took courage from films like Anna. They taught him he wasn’t crazy to do things differently.”
Gianfranco Rosi will be our Guest of Honour during IDFA 2020. Would you like to know more about his films and style? Read the article "A Cinematic Journey into the Real."