Review: La bocca del lupo (Pietro Marcello)

Editor’s note: Our new contributor Matthew Joseph Jenner was so inspired by the placement of Pietro Marcello’s La bocca del lupo in our Best of the Decade list that he decided to write a review of it for us. Marcello, currently getting the recognition he deserves for last year’s Martin Eden,  crafted a film about, as Matthew puts it, ‘the finite nature of life and the endless pulchritude of love.’

“The past sneaked out the back. All that remains are the traces of memories and shapes, which dissolve.”

These chilling words appear in the final few moments of La bocca del lupo (English: The Mouth of the Wolf), the immensely powerful docu-drama directed by Pietro Marcello. He ventures deep into the various recesses of the human soul in his endeavour to find the beauty underpinning the extraordinary love between two people and their broader existence within a city that has often been neglected in favour of more picturesque landscapes, partly due to the slight decay that the more discerning viewer might see as indelible beauty. A film that is inherently difficult to categorize, mainly due to its unconventional structure and tendency to shift between different genres in ways that are often unique and wholly unexpected, it takes us on a voyage into a profound space that can sometimes be quite bewildering. This is partly because of the stylistic choices the director makes, but also the vaguely unsettling sense of existential despair that pervades the story of hyper-masculine Enzo and his wife Maria, a transgender woman, who are exploring a romance neither of them was likely to have ever predicted had they not encountered each other in one of the more rare, but no less touching, stories of love at first sight. La bocca del lupo is a challenging work, both for the viewer and for the industry as a whole, as it evokes themes and explores certain concepts that are not particularly common and often are avoided in more structured works, perhaps because it would be a feat to be able to represent this kind of aching beauty and longing for a bygone era.

Marcello’s work represents a seismic shift in how films negotiate the boundaries between fact and fiction, which blend together in La bocca del lupo, creating an unconventional but profoundly beautiful tale of human existence, told from the viewpoint of a director intent on exploring a specific romance and the general social context surrounding it. From the outset, we’re presented with a film that explores the nature of reality, or rather our relationship with it, through the use of archival footage, which not only allows for brief glimpses into Genoa’s past but also comments on the film’s unique approach to portraying the past. Taking footage filmed over the decades, it blends this with re-enactments of some of the events described in the epistolary exchanges that take up a good portion of the first two acts. This all can be associated with Roland Barthes’ oft-replicated maxim, “the text is a tissue of quotations, drawn from innumerable centres of culture”, which applies perfectly to what Marcello is doing with La bocca del lupo. Weaving together fragments of the past, combining visual and auditory content in abstract ways, he is able to evoke a deeper sense of what reality actually entails, providing nuanced context to a story that benefits from this more restrained, but no less impactful, approach to filmmaking. The film, which proudly stands as an intersection of numerous genres, as well as questioning the very nature of fiction itself, is an unconventional documentary in which the truth is proposed as being both sacrosanct and pliable, as portrayed in the narrative. Or what can be considered very close to one, being propelled entirely by Marcello’s bold endeavour to portray this strange but endearing story through deriving elements of the past in his unorthodox account of an even more unusual pair of individuals, with the stream-of-consciousness style being a remarkably effective approach to a film that focuses much of its time on considering the notion of memory and how we make use of fragments of the past in our daily lives.

La bocca del lupo is a highly experimental film and one that ventures deep into different areas of the medium of film as a way of conveying its central message, which is mainly that of the passage of time. Towards the end of the film, Enzo proclaims that “The places we pass through are an excavation of memory, the architecture of a lost world.” This presents the director’s themes as being tasked with not only telling this story but also venturing deeper into the collective memories of an entire society, channeled through a touching story of the patience that comes when awaiting true love. Memory plays a pivotal role in La bocca del lupo, as Marcello is less concerned with the broad strokes of beauty normally used when representing such stories, and more with the profoundly personal connection we have with the past. The decision to combine old footage with performative versions of true events filmed specifically for this story creates a conversation around the concept of re-enacting the past as a way of reclaiming it. The individuals at the core of La bocca del lupo are irregular in terms of the kind of people that normally occupy the attention in documentaries like this – two former prisoners, one more recently released than the other, don’t normally get the platform that Enzo and Maria are given here, with Marcello giving them a chance to tell their story, but without allowing them the saccharine atonement a less-restrained director might demonstrate in his work. The film approaches its story by critiquing the allure of sepia-tinted memories, commenting on the intense longing for the past many who have a strong relationship with a particular time and place tend to experience. It shows how we yearn for the past without considering the present, which is exactly the lesson the two central figures in this film tend to fixate upon – appreciating the present as simply the convergence of the past, rather than a pale imitation of it.

Most significantly, La bocca del lupo is a love story more than anything else, but a bilateral one at that. It is primarily the first-hand account of an unconventional couple who fell in love due to their shared experience in a prison, seeing their romance stand the test of time and distance, even growing as the years go on. Secondly, Marcello constructs a beautiful ode to an Italian city that has been lost in time to more picturesque cities, whether it be the majesty of Rome, the glamour of Milan or the mystery of Venice. The film is a steadfast statement on the roots of love and the intersections between memory and our fondness for the past. The title is borrowed from a novel by Remigio Zena, a rebellious writer who hailed from the same region that the film takes place in, his life similarly tumultuous, but with the constant yearning to return to his home of Genoa. The city is primary to La bocca del lupo, especially in how the film perceives the relationship one has with their home. The most impactful moments here come with the re-enactments of Enzo’s return after being released from prison – time has not only eroded the city that he knew so well but replaced it with something unrecognizable to him. The archival footage forms a powerful montage of the past, showing a city that some could perceive as fading, others as progressing from the antiquity. La bocca del lupo is either triumphant or tragic, depending on how the viewer interprets the change in Genoa, as presented by Marcello, whose intentions here are not always clear. His work seems largely unbiased towards a specific viewpoint, with the focus on representing the achingly beautiful melancholy underlying the story of Enzo and Maria, with their romance giving perspective to the overarching themes of memory and objective romance.

Pietro Marcello truly made something special with La bocca del lupo, a fascinating experimental documentary that is as ambitious as it is powerful, showing the lives of two people whose love goes against any boundary, whether tangible or metaphysical. Told in fragments that form a compelling narrative tapestry, the film dives into human nature in a way rarely this poignant. Whereas more conventional films would tend to follow particular structural constraints, La bocca del lupo is fierce in its defiance, the form echoing the message it intends to convey. The title evokes some sense of entrapment – whether it be the physical restraint of prison, or the more abstract inescapability of a city going through changes that indicate progression of new ideas, and the erasure of traditions. These traditions are only preserved in the memories of its inhabitants, whether those who have watched their home change around them or, in the case of Enzo, returning after years of being absent from the city he grew up in. Fearlessly blending fact and fiction, La bocca del lupo is a potent manifesto on profoundly human issues, a powerful exploration of complex themes, delivered with such ease by a director whose work reflects not only a keen understanding of the human condition, but a meaningful interest in the subject matter, whether it be the broad story of a city in flux or the intimate romance between two individuals who fell in love almost by accident. The film is a bleak criticism of social erosion, but also a steadfast celebration of resilience, a theme rarely portrayed with such astonishing elegance and outright originality. All of which goes into the making of a film that simply defies logical explanation, and exists as an abstract bundle of audacious ideas set to a melodic sequence of images and sounds that create a truly unforgettable, melancholy experience about the finite nature of life, and endless pulchritude of love.