By Jeff Farr
“The Mouth of the Wolf,” from director Pietro Marcello, is a poetic essay that at first seems slight but then gains considerable traction as it goes along. By the film’s end, Marcello has pulled us in with a surprisingly moving experience.
The film also at first seems a rather somber exercise: an arty, slowish documentary with lots of static shots and a moody soundtrack by ERA. But this belies the deep romanticism and respect for its subjects with which the film leaves us.
On the one hand, “The Mouth of the Wolf” is about the karma of a very specific place: Genoa, Italy, a seaport that has seen much better days. Archival footage brilliantly assembled by Marcello and editor Sara Fgaier suggests that Genoa is now a “lost world.” It is one of those towns that has been industrialized to death, one of those towns where the past has become so much bigger than the present or future can ever hope to become.
A never-identified narrator (Franco Leo) ruminates on “our hazy memories”—they may be hazy, but Marcello’s Genoa owns them. This is the kind of film that W. G. Sebald might have made.
This Genoa could be a stand-in for the state of Europe or the state of the West itself: the boom is over and probably never coming back. Who is left to make sense of things but the struggling poor like Enzo and Mary, the aging lovers at the film’s center?
Enzo is a macho guy whose once-magnificent body is just starting to head, much like Genoa, toward decline. His rough but handsome face, closely observed by Marcello’s camera, is just starting to show the signs of old age.
Marcello’s most interesting strategy here is to delay the full entrance of Mary, a transsexual, until very late in the film. We hear many of Enzo and Mary’s letters to each other during Enzo’s long imprisonment—they met in prison—but we are constantly wondering when Mary will actually face the camera as Enzo has been.
The letters, in which the two affectionately call each other “bastard” and “bitch,” are moving and funny at the same time. This love is one of those true loves—two kindred spirits finding each other under the most unlikely circumstances and together saying “fuck the world,” never letting each other go.
When Mary finally reveals herself—in a long single-shot interview of Enzo and Mary in their beat-up flat—she does not disappoint. Wearing an awkward wig, she is both eloquent and irresistibly cute as she recounts in great detail their love story and how Enzo’s love got her off heroin. Enzo adds commentary from the side but is mostly distracted by their off-screen dogs.
The sequence is comparable in effect to the lengthy single-shot conversation (“debate” might be more accurate) between Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham in Steve McQueen’s “Hunger” (2008). This one is a comparable showstopper.
Enzo and Mary are joined in the dream of eventually getting out of town and having their own place in the countryside, where they can live out their twilight years in peace. As an audience, we have been trained to view a long-shot dream like this one with resigned cynicism and some trepidation, especially in art films like this one. But Marcello deftly plays with our expectations and does not give us the usual downbeat conclusion.
The point of all this seems pretty clear. Marcello is attempting no less than to give us a view of history, to advocate for a way of looking at history. It is the “small great stories, that’s what it was,” the narrator concludes, no doubt speaking for the director. In other words, the history of a town like Genoa or of Europe, the West, or even the entire world is, in the end, made up of these “small great stories” like Enzo and Mary’s romance, which we find so hard to leave behind once it has wriggled its way into our hearts.
Without these “small great stories,” there is no Genoa, no Europe, no world. We should not forget the ordinary people, Marcello insists.
An MK2 release.
Directed and written by Pietro Marcello.
Produced by Nicola Giuliano, Francesca Cima, and Dario Zonta.
Cinematography, Pietro Marcello.
Editing, Sara Fgaier.
Original music, ERA.
Running time: 76 minutes.