It may seem like any other tiny Tuscan town, but Monticchiello has a fascinating story like no other.
Every year when summer rolls around, the town’s 136 residents come together to confront their issues through the art of theatre.
The village’s piazza transforms into a stage and locals - bambini and nonni alike - put on a unique show, playing the role of none other than themselves.
This annual tradition was born out of the desire of Monticchiello’s residents to discuss issues affecting the tight-knit community, from tormenting memories of the Fascist era to women’s rights and divorce, and the threat of tourism and modernity to the town’s heritage.
Over time, Italy’s economic crisis has hit Monticchiello hard and the younger generations have begun to lose interest in the production, posing a threat to its survival.
Will this longstanding tradition stand the test of time?
In their latest masterpiece, acclaimed documentarians Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen capture a fascinating portrait of Monticchiello’s journey, and a world in which theatre and real life overlap.
The duo’s previous award-winning collaboration, Marwencol, featured at the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival and this year, they will bring us Spettacolo, a tribute to community and tradition set against the stunning backdrop of Tuscan scenery and architecture.
The documentary is the product of fate, as Malmberg and Shellen stumbled upon Monticchiello while travelling through Tuscany and soon realised it was a world of its own.
“It was completely different from all of the other tourist towns we’d seen,” they explained.
“The town was deserted, except for one open door - the door to the artist’s studio of our main character, Andrea. Andrea is a captivating person and an incredible artist - we immediately wanted to film him.”
It was outside Andrea’s quaint studio that the American couple spotted a flyer for the Teatro Povero di Monticchiello, or the “Poor Theatre of Monticchiello”, and so a new film was born.
Spettacolo begins in the cold winter months when, as the theatre’s director, Andrea calls a meeting to discuss current issues and potential themes for the next play.
Topics such as financial hardship, political instability and a dwindling future generation dominate the discussion and soon become interwoven to create a production about the “end of the world”.
The film then traces the town’s journey through the seasons, as Andrea uses a wild fennel plant to track the production’s process: he knows that as the plant grows towards the sky and flourishes he is running out of time and when, in the first days of summer, it is chopped down, the play must be ready.
Both of Swedish origins, Malmberg and Shellen barely spoke a word of Italian when they began filming, but as their bond with the locals developed, so too did their knowledge of the language.
Based in bustling Los Angeles, the duo was astounded by Monticchiello’s strong sense of community.
“In Los Angeles, it takes an hour to cross town because of the traffic; in Monticchiello, it takes the same amount of time because you stop every five steps to chat with a neighbour,” they joked.
“When Alpo - one of our subjects - died, the surrounding villages came together to celebrate his life and support his widow. It’s so different from here, where ‘community’ has become a digital buzzword.”
The people of Monticchiello are connected by their commitment to the town’s unique tradition and their mutual desire to share views and opinions while allowing every voice to be heard.
But in the film, Andrea predicts that the Teatro Povero di Monticchiello will inevitably run its course as many other traditions have, adding that he hopes it will end before it loses its meaning altogether.
“I think the locals hope it will last – and they’re certainly doing everything they can to keep it alive – but they’re also very pragmatic,” Malmberg explained.
“For now, though, they’re trying to find new ways to keep it alive and vibrant. They told us that the film helped them identify some things they want to change.”
Malmberg and Shellen hope that the film will provide Monticchiello with a new generation of informed tourists who make their way to the tiny village for more than its restaurants.
“Every night, the villagers of Monticchiello come together to talk about their problems,” they said.
“They don’t all agree with each other or even like each other. Some villagers have money, while others are poor agricultural workers. And sometimes the villagers would much rather just watch TV or go to the beach. But they do it – they show up and they talk to each other. And their culture, community, and lives are richer for it.”
Spettacolo will be screened on August 10 at the Forum Theatre and August 20 at Hoyts Melbourne Central, Cinema 11 as part of the 2017 Melbourne International Film Festival.