F.: Vittorio De Seta; Op.: Alfredo Manganiello; Mo.: Vittorio De Seta; Org.: Giorgio Fraticelli; Prod.: Astra Cinematografica 35mm. D.: 11’
It was as if De Seta were an anthropologist who spoke with the voice of a poet. Where did this voice come from, I wondered? Forty years after asking myself that question, perhaps the answer was to be found in these documentaries. When I finally screened them, I was stunned. From the very first images I had a sense of uneasiness, of displacement. I felt unprepared for what I was seeing. An intense emotion took hold of me. It was almost as if I had entered the screen and I was there, in a world I had never known but suddenly recognized. It was a world in its twilight. I was watching my ancestral culture at the end of its history, on its way to the realm of myth.
I was reminded of a scene in Fellini’s Roma where a fresco dis- appears in contact with light, as a subway is built – fragments of an ancient civilization reached into the modern world and resonated with epic tones.
I now felt that beyond entering the screen I was entering the eye of the filmmaker. As if I saw the world as De Seta had, as if I was reclaiming my roots with him. I was sharing his curiosity and his amazement and I was sadly realizing, as he must have, that the vitality of an unspoiled culture was being filmed for the very last time.
This was Sicily on the screen, the Sicily that my grandparents were the last in my family to know, the Sicily they had left behind. A place where the light of day was so precious and the nights were totally dark and mysterious. A place that had not changed for centuries, where the way of life was always the same, where natural calamities were a part of life, ready at any moment to bring death and destruction. A place where religion was of primary importance, where the hardships of life turned into the stations of the cross. No wonder Easter week has always been so important in Sicily. Ultimately, it is the liturgy of the crucifixion that these people identified with.
These were the children of Sisyphus, who had imprisoned Thanatos so that no mortals would die, the children of Prometheus, who had stolen the fire from the gods to give it to mortals – and were punished for eternity.
Children who seek the way to redemption through the labor of their hands: in the entrails of the earth (Surfarara [Sulphur Mine]), out at sea (Contadini del mare [Peasants of the Sea]), over the hills (Parabola d’oro [Golden Parable]) – the nets being pulled, the wheat being cut, the sulphur dug. People who seemed to pray through the labor of their hands.
What kind of alchemy was this? Here was cinema in its essence – where the filmmaker is not just recording reality but living it. De Seta’s humble empathy that I had experienced in watching Banditi a Orgosolo forty years ago, I recognized in these documentaries.
I felt that I had witnessed not just the world of my ancestors appear in front of my eyes but also a cinema that no longer existed. A cinema with the power of religious evocations. The entire screening had been no more than an hour but time passed slowly – as if I inhabited each frame as it clicked by. Something had happened in me. This was cinema at its best, a cinema that had the power to transform. I understood something I had not understood before, I experienced emotions I didn’t know I had. I felt I had travelled to a paradise lost.