Berlinale 2021 review: For Lucio (Pietro Marcello)

Pietro Marcello’s exquisite follow-up to Martin Eden (2019) is a multilayered documentary on the famed Italian singer Lucio Dalla. Bowing in Berlinale Special, For Lucio can be seen as a direct continuation of Marcello’s previous works in documentary form, which were distinguished by the filmmaker’s skill in finding poetry in archival footage and playing with film texture in unexpected ways. This new addition to the director’s oeuvre is likely to enjoy an extensive festival run, much like his earlier documentaries. In For Lucio, Marcello once again recycles old photographs, still images, archival materials, and interview excerpts in a surprising, highly inventive collage. Accompanied by a series of wonderful songs by Lucio Dalla himself, the wealth of material on display here is interwoven with new interviews Marcello conducted with Dalla’s long-time manager Umberto Righi (nicknamed Tobia) and childhood friend Stefano Bonaga. Righi and Bonaga even appear in a lengthy restaurant scene, eating pasta while chatting about their memories of Lucio.

Dalla is a unique figure who has long fascinated Marcello, and the filmmaker’s treatment is suitably unusual, avoiding the trappings of biography and moving freely between various aspects of Lucio’s personal and professional lives. Lucio is portrayed as an immensely talented, yet conflicted musician who often struggled with the gap between his artistic aspirations and the expectations of his audience. He developed a fresh combination of jazz and Mediterranean folk music, using his art as an increasingly political form, but also enjoyed commercial success as an artist with broad mainstream appeal. While tracing Lucio’s artistic trajectory, Marcello highlights his collaboration with poet Roberto Roversi, who penned the lyrics for many of Dalla’s best-known songs. Roversi’s skillful incorporation of left-wing politics in his poetry makes him a perfect match for Lucio, whose songs often explore the working-class experience in once-rural parts of Italy.

This theme also forms the backbone of Marcello’s documentary. Above all, For Lucio is a portrayal of working-class struggle in the face of Italy’s industrial transformation. Bologna, where both Lucio Dalla and Roberto Roversi hailed from, is presented as a city whose provincial culture is irretrievably lost because of rapid industrialization and urban development. Marcello often moves away from Lucio’s story and devotes considerable screen time to beautifully grainy images of factory workers, ordinary citizens, those who find it difficult to keep up with the changing times. This socioeconomic layer of the film is further enriched by archival footage depicting key historical events, such as the opening of a massive Fiat automobile factory and the 1980 bomb attack that killed dozens in a train station in Bologna. Through such sequences, Marcello combines Lucio’s personal story with the tumultuous times he witnessed, creating a multifaceted portrait. While the ambition of Marcello’s approach is certainly to be lauded, perhaps a longer running time, with more details or contextual information about the political layer of the film, would be beneficial for viewers unfamiliar with Italian political history. Running 79 minutes, For Lucio works best as a creative mood piece, but leaves one craving more when it comes to social commentary about Italy’s post-World War II recovery and its cost for the rural working class.

Featuring a lovely archival cameo by Ingrid Bergman, For Lucio is both an inventive portrait of a great artist and a politically-charged document about significant historical events. Perhaps Marcello’s greatest achievement in the film is the extraordinary fluidity of his direction, his ability to join these two dimensions in an organic, seamless, and evocative manner. While the appeal of the film for Lucio Dalla fans is obvious, other admirers of Marcello’s work in and outside Italy will find much to appreciate here as well.