Berlinale 2023 review: The Walls of Bergamo (Stefano Savona)

“The importance of this empathetic document cannot be overstated.”

“There’s something broken in all of us.”

In early 2020 the city of Bergamo and its surrounding area became the epicentre of the burgeoning COVID-19 crisis in Europe. Not having the privilege yet of knowing how to deal with the rapidly spreading virus in these early stages, the city was ravaged. Between February 20th and March 31st more than 6000 people died. Italian documentary maker Stefano Savona picked up his camera and with a group of his students travelled to Bergamo to film the frontline of a different war zone than he was used to from his other work. Filming the lives of those taking care of the helpless and their families, he started to document the lives of the doctors, nurses, volunteers, and funeral home employees as they were overwhelmed in their attempts to fight a forest fire with a garden hose. After the initial wave was over, the people he followed were riddled with feelings of guilt, grief, and uncertainly about the future and how they themselves and Bergamo at large should rebuild their lives, their family structures, and indeed their city. An emotionally hard-hitting documentary about a city facing an unprecedented crisis filmed from the trenches, Savona’s The Walls of Bergamo is a vital work for not just the city of Bergamo, but for us all in the process of healing from an epidemic that we all faced.

Savona documents the crisis from a fly-on-the-wall perspective, unobtrusive and respectful of not just the caretakers he is filming, but of those who they take care of as well. The film doesn’t flinch, as it shows us the grim realities inside the hospitals, nursing homes, and funeral parlors of Bergamo during the first weeks of the pandemic. The elderly taking the brunt of the blow, death is all around. A dying man tries to write his wife a note, because speaking to her over the phone has become too much of a burden on his respiratory system; the scribbling of his weakened hands forms no letters, only lines. Volunteers on the phone and dispatch calls overlap with images of a city in darkness, while ambulances form a nervous score. Coffins are stacked high in a hospital basement. The first half of The Walls of Bergamo is one of dread, despair, and sorrow, and it’s a harrowing and emotional watch. A shared experience with an audience that has had a similar experience in its own right, even if not as devastating on a community level, ascertains that the film cuts deep.

After the first wave Bergamo tries to crawl back into the light from the dark abyss of the first hour. But how do you deal with the trauma imprinted on your soul, the stories etched into your memory, the guilt of making it through that weighs heavy on your heart? Healthcare professionals, patients, survivors, a funeral home director, all people followed by Savona in the first hour, start to come together in a park above the titular walls. Talking about their experiences helps to cope with the grief, and as the sun starts coming out and the facemasks start coming off, the process of healing begins. They wrestle with guilt over not having fallen victim to the disease, share stories about people they lost, whether they be patients or family members, they try to grapple with the people who they had to let down. But life moves on, and despite the realization that as the quote above says something is broken inside, the fabric of families and of a city needs to be restored.

Last year saw the release of Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s De humani corporis fabrica, a film that with its juxtaposition of the banality of hospital work and the strange universe that is the inside of the human body is somewhat of a surrealist companion piece to the very realist The Walls of Bergamo. What both films have front and center is their portrayal of the hard work of healthcare professionals, even if they go about it in very different ways. Savona keeps it sober, without the directorial flourishes of Paravel and Castaing-Taylor; understandable given the graveness of the subject matter. Which isn’t to say that the film doesn’t add an artful layer. Mixed in with the realism are images of the past, of happier times in and around Bergamo. To be fair, they don’t add much to the film other than moments of relief from the misery, but maybe that’s the only intent. And it doesn’t take anything away from Savona’s documentary. As we come out of the pandemic, cinema will surely reflect on it in the coming years; but it feels like Savona has already made the definitive documentary on the subject, a monumental film that is at times difficult and gut-wrenching to watch but is now, at the moment we seem to be out of the woods, an almost cleansing and therapeutic experience. The importance of this empathetic document cannot be overstated; a way to heal the scars on the souls of the caretakers or the family members that suffered through the worst of it, and a way to understand what the worst of it really meant for those of us lucky enough to have evaded it.

(c) Image copyright: ILBE