Hipiji rade o dokumentarac o ovisnici s ulice, ali naprave dokumentarac o vlastitim shvaćanjima.
Recently restored by the Cineteca di Bologna, this astonishing nearly four-hour documentary centers on the titular pregnant, homeless 16-year-old whom the filmmakers discovered in Rome’s Piazza Navona. Mainly shot on then-newfangled video (which gives the black-and-white images a ghostly translucence), it documents the interactions between the beautiful, clearly damaged, often dazed Anna and the directors, who take her in partly out of compassion and partly because she’s a fascinating subject for a film. Far from straightforward vérité, this self-implicating chronicle includes reenactments of the first meeting, explicit attempts to direct its subject, and frequent intrusions from behind the camera (not least the emergence of the film’s electrician as a love interest). Annacuts between domestic scenes and café discussions back in the square, where the unruly cross talk among hippies, bums, bourgeoisie, and angry young men touches on the movie’s key themes of obligation and intervention: between filmmakers and their subjects, the state and its citizens, fellow members of society.
Restored by Cineteca Nazionale and Cineteca di Bologna with Associazione Alberto Grifi. - www.filmlinc.com/films/on-sale/anna
“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 café 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 À bientôt, j’espére (Be Seeing You) (co-directed with Mario Marret), which documented the formation of class consciousness in striking textile-factory workers in Besançon, 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 declare flippantly 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 Besançon workers in Marker’s À bientôt, j’espére 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 (Société 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 Vertov 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.
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 À bientôt, j’espére, a dialectical process of self-inscription has taken place that allows Marker, as filmmaker, to disappear. The Besançon 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.”
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 verité’s reflexive recognition of its own capturable moments nor 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. - Rachel Kushner,
It’s customary for me at festivals to have certain phrases of a program guide description floating through my head, mantra-like, while watching the film. For the recently unearthed Italian doco Anna – focusing on a teenage, pregnant homeless girl’s recovery under the wings of two opportunistic filmmakers – the program sez “they film her slow recovery from feral homeless person to human being”.
Aside from the unfortunate phrasing, it also points to what Anna is (quite perversely) not; ie, a streamlined story of a young woman following any arc let alone a triumphant one. It’s a digressive, unwieldy time capsule, shot in an early video that makes its human subjects – a whole range of characters, many not even related to the titular one – look like fuzzy ghosts, or a degraded VHS copy of Warhol screen tests.
If there’s one film it evokes, it’s Robert Kramer’s similarly sprawling, doco-fiction hybrid Milestones, also from the same year. Anna, like Kramer’s film, jumps between the micro and macro, only on a much smaller scale than Kramer's panoramic depiction of US post-Vietnam disillusion. In Anna, intimate, even voyeuristic details (lice being cleaned from Anna's pubes) are juxtaposed with a snapshot of the broader social context (eg, feminist groups beaten by police). Much of it is comprised of closeups of faces, and in its countless scenes of café table political debates between (mostly) hippies, it becomes concerned with the way ideology is stymied by the messiness of human affairs.
Anna is sloppy filmmaking, by design; implicitly positing that capturing a historical moment must come at the expense of ‘good form’. And once the filmmakers’ treatment and exploitation of Anna becomes an issue, it only gets more digressive, bringing in ‘flashbacks’ that don’t really add much except for adding another shambolic layer. Ultimately though, the scattershot approach, combined with the often excruciating blocks of spent in the company of some fairly repugnant people works to the film’s advantage, transforming it into a lament for an impotent hippie culture that no one would want to bring a child into. - sydneyfilmhappenings.blogspot.com/2012/01/rotterdam-p1-anna-dir-alberto-grifi.html
Disappearances After the Revolution: On Alberto Grifi and Massimo Sarchielli’s Anna
By Andréa Picard
“As a filmmaker, I think we have to venture into the no man’s land that lies between reality and imagination, between documentation and fiction…Filming the impossible is what’s best in life.”—Joris Ivens
“New languages aren’t invented in the editing phase, it is life undergoing a transformation that demands new languages…”—Alberto Grifi
Certain images brand themselves on you. They take hold and refuse to relinquish their grasp. Troubling in more ways than one, they sometimes surpass their aesthetic worth and lodge themselves into the annals of memory where they continue to reverberate and disturb long after being encountered. Such is the case with an image of a young, vulnerable, and feisty Anna, the 16-year-old subject of Alberto Grifi and Massimo Sarchielli’s masterpiece, shot in 1972-73, first exhibited in 1975, and recently restored by the Cineteca Nazionale in collaboration with the Cineteca di Bologna. It’s a moving image that appears static yet sprawling, sculptural yet fluid. We see Anna in the shower, naked, with water dripping from her long, wet stringy hair, her cherubic body glistening as her engorged breasts, squeezed by the hands of co-director Massimo, dribble mother’s milk; a child’s giggle escapes from her fulsome mouth. Her eyes are as blank and round as a Greek statue’s. We watch in stunned disbelief as a welter of contradictory senses and emotions overcomes all at once: pity, compassion, anger, strange anticipation, immense frustration, skepticism, and the like. Disarmingly close to this nubile, yet incredibly pregnant adolescent, the camera—and we, by extension—combs over her sinuous body, just as Massimo later combs through her long mane, and also her pubic hair, for lice; Grifi films the entire head-to-toe delousing in nervy close-ups.
While the shower scene, in which Massimo lathers and scrubs the girl down, copping a full feel, stands out as one of the most troubling, the nearly four-hour Anna is replete with such images—ones that seem to be captured directly from life with startling immediacy, and others that are clearly re-enacted or scripted for the sake of the film. The observed and re-enacted are all the same to the young girl who alternatively appears high as a kite, confused, or oddly malleable, likely from the physical and emotional exhaustion of having lived on the streets before the filmmakers took her in, ostensibly to care for her, but under the persistent, probing gaze of their camera for which she conveniently becomes a subject-star-experiment. The camera’s unflinching presence awakens in Anna a complex screen persona, allowing her to wield remarkable power, her coy and cunning performance a respite from the tragedy of the situation which one senses she suspects despite her often crude, reckless and dazed front. Anna is astonishingly inscrutable, part enfant sauvage, part pre-Raphaelite Ophelia. In quieter moments she appears a frightened child in need of a teddy bear, but her deep melancholia is that of Botticelli’s Venus, with a supple, eroticized, and knowing vacancy.
The domestic scenes bear some resemblance to those of early Cassavetes or Tarr, replete with incessant conjugal jousting matches tempered by moments of poignant tenderness and disarming silences. But those silences are few and far between, as Anna largely presents a dizzying manic energy; a result of the fidgety teen, and the hyper-mobile filmmakers recording life—before, when, after, and as it re-happens. They also film at the Piazza Navona café where Massimo first encountered Anna; the café’s habitués form a motley Greek (yet very Roman!) chorus, providing the socio-historical and political backdrop to the scene, as well as a self-reflexive forum for debating the ethics of the filmmakers’ deeds. Are Grifi and Sarchielli enacting compassion and societal responsibility or guilty of exploitation and sexual harassment? Is the film an expression of naïveté or extremely crafty? The numerous digressions at the café, which lend the film its zigzag structure, are hashed out among hippies, wannabe communists, feminists, flâneurs, and members of the bourgeoisie all too keen to voice their diverse views on the matter, and on the tumultuous state of contemporary Italy in general.
Not unlike Robert Kramer’s seminal and kaleidoscopic Milestones (also 1975), which uses similar crossbred strategies and concludes with the birth of a child, Anna is less a merging of fact and fiction than a confrontation of and bracing penetration into these two modes of filmmaking, a dual and duelling desire to document and to create. A more lyrical and polished of these benchmark blenders of reality and representation can be seen in Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronique d’un été (1961), its poeticized form light years from Anna’s rough-hewn, jittery recordings. Still, the two share in their pseudo-ethnographic approach to individual narratives in face of a greater socio-political panorama much informed by a pre-revolutionary (Chronique d’un été) and post-revolutionary (Anna) verve and freedom, but also of a newly installed malaise and aimlessness. Chronique d’un été quickly became part of the canon, Milestones rose from an underground cult status with a consistent smattering of small-scale releases, and now Anna is finally resurfacing as one of the most important works of “direct cinema” from the era.
And yet, it’s anything but direct: its vérité is what’s at stake. While much of the film’s fascination lies in its self-reflexive construction, its own contradictory impulses toward guilt, hyperactivity, curiosity, and honesty imbue the work with a profluent agitation. Ultimately, Anna is about cinema: cinema confronting life and life devouring the act of creation, as it in turn attempts to swallow it whole. Vincenzo, the film’s sentient gaffer, is unable to resist Anna’s obvious call for love and pulls the plug on the entire scripted affair. He steps into the frame, irrevocably rupturing the grander frame of the project. It’s an act of resistance and quiet complicity, and above all, of passion. As he earlier did in the Pirelli factory, where he rallied against exploitation, Vincenzo abandons his post and regains individual freedom, seeking love not justice. From that point on, Anna becomes something else entirely…
****Along with being shot partly on 16mm, Anna was the first Italian film to use portable analogue video equipment: some invented by Grifi, whose father specialized in conceiving curious recording apparatuses. The film suffered a fairly short lifespan upon its initial completion, premiering at the Berlinale in 1976, and showing next in Venice and Cannes the following year. Despite its mythic status among the Italians, Anna fell into oblivion and is largely unknown to North Americans. But suddenly Grifi is everywhere. The recently restored version of Anna was included in last year’s Venice Orizzonti retrospective, championed at the venerable, left-leaning Lussas documentary festival in Ardèche, and, most recently, accounts for one of the major discoveries of this year’s Rotterdam. (Also soon to appear is a restoration of 11 hours of unedited footage that Grifi and Sarchielli shot with Anna.) The restored version is being presented from a DCP that reflects the video’s petrified and ghostly diffusion: its blocky analogue images, originally transferred to 16mm through an invention of Grifi’s called the “vidigrafo,” were digitized with the acid-washed grey glitches and stuttering striations philosophically preserved. At 9 o’clock in the bloody morning (thankfully, ristretto in hand), I found Anna just as disturbing and unshakable as last year’s major IFFR rediscovery, Augustí Villaronga’s sado-psycho-horror In a Glass Cage (1987). But there the similarities end.
In Paris a few days later, I stumbled upon some of Grifi’s short films sharing a room with works by Paolo Gioli in the latest acquisitions galleries of the Pompidou, all digitized and shown looping on sleek, silver monitors. Then in the Berlinale’s Forum Expanded, Harun Farocki presented what is perhaps Grifi’s most well-known work, and a key film of ‘60s Italian experimental cinema, La verifica incerta (1964-65, also shown in the Orizzonti retro last year). Co-conceived and constructed by Gianfranco Baruchello (an artist with significant gallery representation at the time), this half-hour 16mm montage opus was first shown in Paris at Marcel Duchamp’s studio, then in New York at MoMA and the Guggenheim at the invitation of John Cage, two artists to whom the work is indebted. An endlessly rich and anarchic found-footage film culled from 450,000 feet of moving images from 47 films, mainly ‘50s Hollywood CinemaScope films (but also ‘60s Italian cinema, most notably the noxious, neon steam belched from industry in Antonioni’s prescient 1964 masterpiece, Red Desert), La verifica incerta remains a major touchstone of the avant-garde.
In dialogue with the movements of the time—Fluxus, the New American cinema, Lettrisme, and Situationisme—and emerging from the trajectory that draws a line from Vertov to Dada (combining Duchamp’s ready-mades with the latter’s painterly concerns with movement and illusionism), La verifica incerta also careens from the idea of a troubling and unstable image. Its rigourous, yet playful refutation of Hollywood’s visual cultural hegemony (and its subconscious dream machine) is a gesture of desecration toward spectacle and complacent spectatorial habits. The deep mistrust of the image reflected in the film’s title can also be seen as clearing the way toward Anna, which in turn partakes in the paradigmatic shift in media culture marking the early ‘70s. A brief cameo by Jane Fonda in Anna can thus be interpreted in two ways. The ambiguity of what her presence symbolizes—let’s not forget that Letter to Jane was made in 1972—inevitably reflects the intertextuality in which La verifica incerta revels. Like in a magic trick, Jane appears and disappears in a flash. Anna, too, engages in a surprising disappearance act, vanishing before the film ends. Suddenly gone from the screen, Anna lives on in our imagination where she gives birth to her child in privacy, in darkness. She steadfastly refused to grant the filmmakers access to the clinic where she gave birth, subverting their hopes for a momentous conclusion. A final act of resistance in the tragedy that was her life.
What the restored version omits is a filmed introductory statement that Grifi recorded a couple of years after the film’s completion as a sort of prologue. It’s a deeply affecting apologia to an eternally lost Anna, and a candid acknowledgement of the missteps and flaws that are deeply woven into the film’s fabric. The last part of Grifi’s auto-interview merits excerpting, but is best read after having seen the film, as, not unlike La verifica incerta, it demythologizes as much as it exhumes:
“Massimo maintains that we exposed the decay of institutional systems, but ultimately we should have done something more. While living with Anna, we should have criticized ourselves as an institution, we should have self-managed and tried to find alternative solutions, or to create within and among us, relations that were radically different.
“The last time we spoke with Anna, it was she who called us on the phone. She was in a psychiatric hospital, and through tears, was pleading for our help to leave that place. All we knew to do was to record the phone call. We chose a film about reality over the struggle to change reality. Vincenzo, the gaffer who should have remained off-screen, is the only one who stepped in to live this story.”
Grazie mille to Davide Oberto for his indispensible translation help making this article possible.