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The Arts Voyager, 9-7: Send in the Clowns
Running away with the circus with Covi & Frimmel

Walter Saabel and Asia Crippa in "La Pivellina," a film by Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel, and a First Run Features release..

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak

NEW YORK -- Where is the line between documentary and fiction? In film, even documentaries involve story-telling. And fiction should have at least a kernel of truth in order to resonate. Two films by the same directors on view this week at Anthology Film Archives, the New York theatrical premiere of Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel's fictional "La Pivellina (Little Girl)," showing through tonight (with the film-makers presenting it), and their documentary "Babooska," running through Sunday (ditto), offer the unique opportunity to examine the question through the lens of directors whose fiction looks and feels like a documentary and whose documentary could just as well be cinema verite. Both offer the opportunity to run away with the circus and tour rural, coastal, and suburban Italy as seen through the lives of nomadic performers living on the edge, their grip on financial survival as tenuous as a tight-rope walker's on terra firma.

The 2005 "Babooska" starts with the 20th birthday party of its title heroine, the hula-hoop artist Babooska Gerardi, and ends with the 21st, following a year on the road with the Gerardi family. The gritty, sometimes claustrophobic scenes of domestic life inside cramped yet homey trailers contrast with often breathtaking outdoor landscapes and vistas, particularly the coastal views, with the heroine walking her dog "Funky" on beaches caressed by blue-grey toned waves (the directors use sepia effectively too). In Babooska, who at times seems to carry the weight of the family enterprise on her svelte amber shoulders, even if parents Naike Gerardi and Giancarlo Gerardi are still there, one also sees the future of her much younger (perhaps 8) sister Azzurra, who faces the challenge of life on the road, most notably having no constant school, with wide-eyed ebullience, only lapsing into discouragement when her mother asks how the school year's gone, and Azzura answers, "Bad."

The particular brilliance of "Babooska" is that the film-makers don't actually show the Gerardis, accompanied in their touring by Babooska's fiance Michele Pellegrini, in performance until the very end of the 100-minute documentary, when Babooska goes out in style with a glittering and sinuous hula-hoop performance, as innocently joyous as it is sensual. While this was viscerally frustrating -- at times I found myself demanding, "If this is a film about circus performers, SHOW them performing!" -- it was an ingenious choice for portraying what, after all, is the reality of the Gerardis' lives 90 percent of the time: Waking up in rain-flooded empty lots in suburban wastelands and hurrying to shut off the kitchen electricity on the generator while searching for the dog who's hiding from the lightning (with Babooska hailing him, "Funky!" "Funky!"). The film thus becomes less about something as superficial as 'circus' than about something more profound: Home. Throughout their peripheries, we regularly see Babooska and Naike go through the ritual of replacing their things on shelves in the kitchen and living room of their trailer -- they'd presumably been stowed during the journey to keep them from crashing down. A swimming pool is inflated so that Azzurra and her pals can cavort in it like normal kids with a fixed home. A cooly languorous scene shows Azzurra taking her bath in a pool set in a wintry coastal landscape. This may be a documentary, but that doesn't mean it's cinematically neutral, as the directors are not shy about applying technique to their portrait. Another scene shows Babooska and Michele facing off angrily against a local restaurant-keeper who has forced them to move circus locations twice and nonetheless called the police. Because this confrontation takes place in a sort of square at the bottom of hilly streets, the setting has the effect of a boxing ring, with Babooska and Michele advancing and retreating, feinting and withdrawing.

Babooska is also a unique sort of travelogue, of a back-country Italy as seen not through the eyes of tourists, but by people who see it as their work-place and thus don't romanticize it. In some 'coin perdu' -- lost neck of the woods -- Giancarlo drives around a forlorn sea-side town in his van, its speaker announcing that their circus has been extended four days by popular demand (in reality, they don't have an imminent gig), and wonders aloud where all the people are. Later in the same ville, a local bartender who hails from Naples explains to Babooska and Michele that the people mostly stay inside watching television after work, but do come out to the bar on Saturdays, when an accordion-player offers dancing music. "Young people?" asks Babooska. "No, old," she answers. In the perpetual conversation that any traveler in Europe has in bars with other outsiders, she explains that the locals are not as warm as in Naples, but more insular.

While the directors try hard to not have a point of view on Babooska's life -- there are no formal interviews -- in the end they can't resist offering a perspective. Towards the film's conclusion, after the family celebrates her 21st birthday around a table in the cramped trailer-home, they share a home movie of an earlier birthday -- perhaps her 10th -- and a time when Babooska was as carefree as Azzurra. Then finally we're back to the present where we finally get to see her joyously perform, and get a hint of what keeps her in it, besides tradition and lassitude, even if, as the final sub-title announces as the lights dim over the undulating star, "The tricks keep getting harder."

Patrizia Gerardi and Asia Crippa in "La Pivellina," a film by Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel, and a First Run Features release.

Covi and Frimmel use a pretty interesting trick themselves to lend documentary verite to "La Pivellina," their first fiction film, released in 2009: One of its two stars, Patrizia Gerardi, was already introduced in "Babooska" as the title character's grandmother, who in both films makes her living in part by ducking the hurled knives of her life and work partner Walter Saabel in their own humbler circus. From this reality Covi and Frimmel invent a fictional premise: The film opens when Gerardi -- essentially playing herself (in flaming red hair), as introduced in the earlier film, accompanied by knife-throwing husband -- perambulating a terrain vague in a desolate suburb on the outskirts of Rome looking for her dog, discovers instead an abandoned two and a half year old, Asia (Asia Crippa), on a swing. A note buried in the child's winter coat asks the finder to take care of Asia but by no means take her to the police; the vagrant mother seems to know Patrizia, and has counted on her coming along to rescue her daughter.

What follows is a marvelous achievement. I'd forgotten whether "La Pivellina" was supposed to be a documentary or fiction, and without this intelligence, I couldn't tell, so realistic was the acting by Gerardi and Saabel, abetted by Tairo Caroli as a pre-teen who helps them out with the show and with baby-sitting Asia. As for Crippa, either she's a very small five-year-old who can pass for younger or she's the most adept two and a half year old I've ever seen on screen. It's not just that she talks when she's supposed to, but that she expresses the exact emotions called for, starting with her initial mistrust of Patrizia and reluctance to follow her home, insisting on waiting for her mother, and going right on through to the end, when Patrizia and Walter prepare to return her to her mother, who's mailed them a note saying she's coming to get Asia, and Asia makes it clear she doesn't want to go.

It's obvious that Patrizia and Walter are playing themselves, itinerant circus performers and proprietors who are never sure they'll even have an audience, presenting the daily existential and economic quandary: Why go on? (Walter helps make ends meet by taking side jobs in other circuses and as a day laborer.) What the directors have done is inject them into a hypothetical situation: What would happen if they found an abandoned infant on a swing in a terrain vague one day? Patrizia's growing attachment to the toddler is subtly conveyed -- she doesn't display a lot of emotion with her face, it's all in her regard -- leading up to a discrete visit to an adoption agency from which Caroli emerges to give Patrizia the bad news: To adopt, one needs to be at least 18 and there cannot be more than 45 years between the adoptive parent and the infant; Patrizia and Walter are old enough to be Asia's grandparents.

Even Walter's disposition towards Asia evolves from at first urging Patrizia to go to the police right away to avoid being charged with kidnapping -- because "people like us" are always suspected of the worse -- to changing his mind in front of the police station at the last minute after he's about to show the police a photo of Asia to see if anyone's reported her missing. The origins of Asia's abandonment are fuzzy; a junk-man with a shop near the water, asked by Patrizia if he's seen anything suspicious -- say, a young woman jumping off the nearby bridge -- reports a visit by a young man who asked if he'd seen an infant, but the man's description of this potential father is vague.... In the end (spoiler alert), after a prolonged goodbye party for Asia, with a trip to a fun house and a party with champagne and cake, on the day the mother's supposed to pick her up, they wait and wait and... she doesn't show. If Patrizia has what she wants, her face shows disappointment -- that a mother could throw away a child like this, unwanted and unappreciated, discarded as she and Walter must feel.

Anthology Film Archive's retrospective dedicated to Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel continues through Sunday, featuring in addition to the films reviewed here "Das ist Alles (That's All)" and "Aufzeichnungen aus dem Tiefparterre (Notes from the Basement)." Starting tonight the film-makers will be present.

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