Blowing in the Wind
Anna: the name of a film, and also the only name we have for the person who is its subject, its veritable star for three and three-quarter hours. It is a good guess that almost no one who sees this remarkable Italian film of the 1970s will have the slightest clue where Anna came from before appearing in it, or where she went afterwards. Or whether she – or the child she bore during the making of the movie – is even still alive.
Anna has effectively disappeared into the images and sounds of this film; it absorbs not only her name, but also something of her fragility and instability. In its materiality, Anna reflects the type of ‘bare life’ experienced by marginalised individuals, a life of which Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has spoken so eloquently.
Anna came about as a kind of accident. The opening scenes play catch-up, re-enacting the encounter of co-director Massimo Sarchielli with this waif of the streets – pregnant, homeless, spaced-out on drugs – in the Piazza Navona of Rome. Sarchielli, a gregarious hippie, takes her in and looks after her, with a small crew recording some remarkably intimate scenes.
But this is also a fiercely political work: it spends as much time on the various protests and heated discussions going on in the Piazza as it does on the interpersonal story.
Indoors, Anna is the object of a fantasy-investment: everyone wants her to embody the newborn revolution of the sub-proletriat. The camera, accordingly, gazes at her as if she were some kind of angel, a gift – both the sign of the real world that most people live in every day, and the hope for its better future.
Anna, however, remains steadfastly detached from this radical passion: her main goal is simply to survive. And the more we observe her, the more we realise how canny and cagey she may really be: using the filmmakers as much as they are using her.
There have been many fiction films dramatising the disillusionment that followed the upheavals and breakthroughs of the 1960s, from Godard-Gorin’s Tout va bien (1972) and Eustache’s La maman et la putain (1973) to Garrel’s Regular Lovers (2005) and Assayas’ Après Mai (aka Something in the Air, 2012). But no movie captures the nervous energy, the air of paranoia, the knotty debates of the time like Anna.
Here you can really see the corrosive effects of what Gilles Deleuze called the ‘society of control’: cops, politicians and doctors form a dark, oppressive, ominously interconnected backdrop to the efforts of these activists.
Time has claimed both Sarchielli (1931-2010) and his collaborator, co-director Alberto Grifi (1938-2007). Grifi was an artist who worked with such cross-media giants of his time as Carmelo Bene and Gianfranco Baruchello; Sarchielli was best known as a colourful character actor, crossing paths with everyone from Federico Fellini and Dario Argento to Jerzy Skolimowski and Spike Lee. But they might have both remained phantoms buried in a few Wikipedia pages if not for the digital technology that has now returned their film to us.
Grifi and Sarchielli were themselves working at a precarious juncture of technological change: Anna was shot using the first open-reel video recorder available in Italy. They embraced the new possibilities this offered for working with extended duration.
Anna could easily have gone the way of much early video art: disintegrated, inaccessible, unviewable on contemporary players. But Grifi had a blessed intuition: he invented a machine that allowed him to transfer video reels to 16mm. It is this footage that provided the basis for the digital restoration by the Cineteca di Bologna.
For once, this restoration is not a meddling, ‘clean up’ operation. The rawness of the video material – as well as the randomness of what gets picked up by the roving, unidirectional microphone – is respected in all its glitchy flares, drop-outs and handheld chaos. The result goes beyond Warhol, beyond Michael Snow: with its grainy faces and half-captured voices, Anna is a heady mixture of the abstract and the concrete, of documentary banality with the heightened melodrama of a lived, spontaneous fiction.
And, of all the faces caught on the fly in this film, there is one, especially haunting, that threatens to usurp Anna from her starring position, because it concludes the movie in a long, painful take – and, once viewed, can never be forgotten. Vincenzo Mazza was part of the crew on Anna. He eventually stepped out from the shadows, as it were, and entered the on-screen story – by declaring his love for Anna and beginning a relationship with her. But this love went wrong, and Anna eventually abandoned him.
For Vincenzo, this spelt more than a personal defeat: he speaks of it as the end of the revolution itself, the extinguishing of an era, the betrayal of its hopes. He thought, as he tells us in this finale, that social change could be gentle, poetic, beautiful; instead, he has learnt only that life is cruel and that – as they suspected before the revolution – society is horrible, and will win out every time.
According to research uncovered by Rachel Kushner (author of The Flamethrowers) in Artforum, Mazza himself disappeared from the face of the earth only a few short years later: he was killed in a street brawl by (of all people) the brother of actor Gian Maria Volonté. Like Anna herself, Vincenzo has become a creature of grain and pixels, a scrap of reality caught in the unruly net fashioned by Grifi and Sarchielli.
Anna is a film devoted to all that is precarious – lives, destinies, material conditions, political programs, artistic representations – but the miracle is that it has survived every one of these ravages, and can seize us as directly and poignantly today as in 1975. Probably, even more so. It is a true masterpiece.
© Adrian Martin November 2012