They call it “the town that plays itself.” Monticchiello, population 118, is a tiny hamlet in Tuscany that, since the 1960s, has annually staged a new play written and performed by the local populace. We’re told in Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen’s documentary Spettacolo that this tradition “began, like many others, with costumes and fanfare,” but quickly these theatrical pieces grew to touch on aspects of these people’s lives. Early on, they tackled the fighting between the fascists and local partisans in the spring of 1944, when a group of Nazis rolled into town and nearly killed everyone. Over the years, the plays have focused in quite striking ways on social changes, political phenomena and economic turmoil. One year, the townspeople turned the whole village into a supermarket and allowed audience members to enter only if they had a shopping cart. Only one product was available on the shelves, however — a mysterious container that eventually turned out to be filled with earth from Monticchiello itself. For a drama written and performed by rural amateurs, that’s edging into the avant-garde.

In Spettacolo, we first see Monticchiello as a series of gray, rocky ramparts nestled among the rolling hills and elegant poplars of central Italy. The town looks solid and ageless, almost as if it’s emerged from the ground itself. So it’s surprising to learn how fragile this place is, and how vulnerable its people feel. There are no jobs left; the town feels abandoned. And “The Poor Theater of Monticchiello,” we’re told, is dying. The men and women that founded it are aging — one has Alzheimer’s, another cancer. Andrea Cresti, a bearded intellectual type who started as an actor and now diligently oversees the writing and directing of the performances, can’t find anyone willing to replace him. “A third of us are already gone,” he remarks. “The future of the theater is in the hands of the young.”

And while tourists come from all over Italy to see the annual performance, the event seems to stir little interest among the younger people in the community — to the extent that there are any young people in the community. To continue the play means to remain in the town, and that appears to be less and less viable an option. “A tradition like this will eventually end,” Andrea says. Then he adds, reflectively, “And that’s a good thing.”

Is there a sadness in this tradition ending? Or of any tradition ending? Maybe it’s not the ritual that matters but what it expresses: The need not just for a sense of community but for an involvement in a creative act, as a way to express something about the here and now. Malmberg and Shellen follow the creation of one year’s play, charting the discussions, the writing, the rehearsals, alongside the languor of daily life and the changes in seasons; for their subjects, creating art feels as vital and as natural as life itself. We sense the pride these people take in this work. One of the film’s most beautiful passages is a montage of different townsfolk — a teacher, a woman hanging laundry, a clerk behind a desk — practicing their lines as they go about their day.

Theater is one of the most fleeting of arts — it’s performed in the moment, and then it’s gone — but these citizens have long, deep memories. The transitory nature of a staged piece of drama cannot compete with the enduring sense of accomplishment it leaves in its wake. Maybe that, ultimately, is what will be lost — and what is being lost — as Monticchiello’s summer plays threaten to come to an end. The idea that a group of men and women can work on something together that will give them purpose and pride, no matter the cost, and put out something that — however fleeting — will transform the world around them.

Spettacolo isn’t the first film I’ve seen about a phenomenon like this. Turkish director Pelin Esmer’s incredible 2005 documentary Play (Oyun) followed a group of Anatolian women in a small village who, as part of their small theater group, created and staged a play about their own oppression, and then performed it for an audience that included their husbands, some of whom were the subjects of the drama. Even there, I sensed that the creators were looking not for revenge or even justice but simply to be heard and seen.

The spectacle in Spettacolo is not nearly as confrontational, though it shares a similar melancholy. The townspeople, again looking to perform something that relates directly to their lives, come up with a story about “the barbarity of modern life” and the financial crisis strangling Italy’s poor and middle classes. As they prepare their performance, one of the country’s biggest banks — which also happens to be one of the play’s main sponsors — goes under, a victim of its own crooked dealings. Is this art or is this prophecy? Is there even a difference?

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