Feature Documentary Reviews

Searching for Beati Paoli (2020) – 1.5 stars

Director: Ric Acevedo

Writer: Ric Acevedo & Alessandra Corrao

Running time: 1hr 26mins

More information on Searching for Beati Paoli is available on IMDb.

Ever since our local police force emblazoned its patrol cars with one, I have been deeply suspicious of the use of ‘mission statements.’ The opening frame of Searching for Beati Paoli lets us know that the producers, Triskelion Productions, provide Content with a Conscience. So, hearts are worn on the sleeve, and this is going to be a film on the side of the angels.

The opening sequence filmed from a moving car shows us a sunlit street scene and the narrator informs us we are in Palermo. Downtown, we glimpse landmarks such as the Praetorian Fountain and, one of my favourite buildings in all of Italy, the Church of San Cataldo with its sublime fusion of Romanesque and Islamic architecture. We then move on to a dramatic clifftop looking out on a Titian blue sea. We are in Sicily and this is a movie made by people with progressive politics – what’s not to like about that? Unfortunately, in my case, the answer is quite a lot.

Through a series of interviews with Palermitans and several with the US director, Ric Acevedo, together with the narration, we learn that, around 1910, Luigi Natoli, a Sicilian writer published a novel. Initially serialised in a local newspaper, the novel titled I Beati Paoli was set at the end of the 17th century, when Spanish Bourbon colonial rule was at its height. In this context, Natoli portrayed the eponymous group of the Beati Paoli as a secret society of hooded avengers, who meted out a people’s justice to the oppressors of the poor, using the labyrinth of tunnels and catacombs beneath the city’s streets as a venue for trials and executions. Acevedo outlines what the film hopes to achieve: to discover whether the group was simply a fiction contrived by Natoli or whether it has some historical basis that might have left some vestigial traces in local folk memory. As the narrator informs us, to the accompaniment of portentous music, the goal is to discover: WHAT IS TRUTH AND WHAT IS STORY.

Acevedo sets about the task with commendable enthusiasm. He assembles a group of local stall holders for interviewees for short vox populi opinion. We are then given some talking heads. Of these, two are fans of Natoli’s work, Daniele works for an oil company, Giuseppe is a civil servant. They do not have any particular expertise and are presumably there to convey enthusiasm and Natoli’s popularity with the Sicilian public. There are interviews with the owner of a local puppet theatre, this is of particular relevance because Natoli’s Beati Paoli have become enduring and popular characters in Palermitan puppetry.

Three academics feature in the film: one gives a short biography of Natoli and the historical context of his work. A second endeavours to theorise about the importance of oral history and to describe the place Natoli holds in the collective psyche of the Sicilian people. Finally, we have a historian specialising in the cisterns, tunnels, and catacombs of the city. Acevedo is given pretty unrestricted access to underground Palermo. For large segments of the film, we follow the historian through the tunnels as they present a whole series of lectures on aspects of the underground environment whilst Acevedo attempts to find some evidence for the Beati Paoli. Acevedo, also, uses the services of an actor, Francesco Giordano, who reads us extracts from Natoli’s novel.

The film’s format has been established. Acevedo uses talking head or interviewee usually intercut with scenes from the ever-vibrant street life of Palermo, the fabulous Rococo interiors of its churches, or the stunning Baroque and Romanesque building facades. These scenes are then followed by a series of extended shots of underground passageways followed by lectures on the minutiae of cisterns or the lay-out of a particular chamber complex. This almost merciless pattern drags throughout the film’s feature-length running time, though some welcome insertions are made.

 Near the start, we have a puppet show with a puppet in character as an evil exploiter deriding the Beati Paoli. This is only a short sequence, but it works brilliantly to convey the part the Beati Paoli have come to play in local folklore. Later on, the owner of the puppet theatre is interviewed in front of his puppets (objects of great beauty) and we see the audience in the theatre expectantly waiting for the show to start. Having grown weary of the film’s rigid format, my wish was to join them and see the marvellous puppets in action. But no such luck, the next scene we were sent back to another cistern lecture. I am genuinely surprised Acevedo did not make more use of such a powerful tool to connect directly with Sicilian culture. I am guessing that he hoped that the readings from Natoli’s novel would fulfil this role.

Sadly, for me, the readings, and there are quite a few of them, did not work, possibly lost in translation, but they came across as unexceptional, stolid late Gothic Romanticism. There is also the problem that someone reading from a book makes for fundamentally boring cinema. An insertion that does work well and provides the stand-out moments from the film is the use of illustration. I am not sure whether the graphic novel-style illustrations with visualizations of the Beati Paoli that are used during the readings and at other points in the film are based on originals from the first newspaper serialisation of Natoli’s novel but whatever their provenance they are so effective. What works even better, is that the illustrator, Maurizio Gullo, uses the same style to produce line drawings of each of the talking heads and interviewees as a kind of cameo introduction – these are beautifully executed. It is a simple device and well done to the director for using it.

How does the search for the historical truth go? Not very well, it is pretty thin stuff. Because Acevedo invested so much time and resources in the underground scenes and really there is not much to see down there Beati Paoli or not, he has to resort to some desperate measures. Cue another piece of portentous music and sepulchral tones from the narrator as the camera shows us a set of steps and we learn that there are ELEVEN and that Natoli mentions ELEVEN steps in one scene in the novel. Well, there you go – with powers of detection like this, who needs Sherlock Holmes?

There are also weird discontinuities in the narrative of the underground section. One of the interviewees and one of the talking heads note that the ‘Scirocco Chamber’ which legend says the group used for trials and executions still exists and can be visited. Do we see it? No, we do not – the question is just left hanging as a strange and glaring omission. There is also a problem over the editing of the historian of the underground’s contribution. None of the footage, has any mention of the existence of the catacombs. Most viewers would have some prior knowledge of their existence (they are one of Palermo’s big tourist attractions), but they are not directly addressed in any of the historian’s many exhaustive lectures. The camera just comes across them, at first a couple of skulls and then a jumble of bones. They seem just to be utilised to bring some much-needed tension to the underground footage – the usage of them seemed odd and as though the filmmaker was trying to deceive the audience.

Acevedo makes intense use of the talking heads (living ones), some of the sequences last for several minutes. Daniele and Giuseppe, the Natoli fans, are given so much time that Acevedo must have been confident that they would hold our attention. Daniele makes some sharp comments on freedom and oppression but that aside their comments as to Natoli’s work are full of banal commonplaces. I am sure they are personable and charming human beings, but they are not able to hold an audience for the aeons of time allotted to them. During, the longueurs of another scene trudging down interminable underground tunnels, I passed the time playing a childish game – betting whether the next scene would be Daniele or Giuseppe. By this stage, attempting to watch the film through to its conclusion felt like a Sisyphean challenge.

What perhaps fatally undermines the use of the talking heads and any credibility that Acevedo is attempting to establish is the quality of the translation. This is not up to the standard required for a film set for release – at points in the second section with the oral historian it degenerates into the nonsensical. Even when the voice-over makes some kind of sense it comes across to an anglophone ear as odd. In one instance amongst many, the translator has Giuseppe tell us: the culture here is both anthropological and influenced by fine cuisine. I was disappointed that Acevedo did not have enough faith in his audience’s attention span and opt for sub-titles which would have perhaps given the editorial team more control over the quality of the dialogue when rendered into another language.

I think this is an indication of some sort of confusion on Acevedo’s part as to what kind of audience he should be aiming to reach. The many and vivid descriptions of Bourbon colonialism, the struggles of the Sicilian people, and discussions around historical truth do not sit easily with the jaunty tourist guide storyboard approach to Sicilian history which the majority of the film seems to take. The storyboard effect is accentuated by Acevedo’s choice of narrator, Adam Seebach. Seebach has the kind of catching your breath but stentorian delivery where every word is spoken in capital letters which would sit well in an audiobook of a Dan Brown novel. So maybe that is the particular path that the director was wanting to take.

One area the film does excel in is the commissioning of a soundtrack. Mike Spear is an experienced purveyor of ambient electronic music, who serves up a competent body of work. What did stand out for me were the several sections of acoustic guitar, the one which accompanies the drive around Palermo at the start of the film is gorgeous. However, there is a problem with Acevedo’s use of Spear’s music. During the talking head sections, if the director thinks that the person is going to make an important point, we get huge waves of orchestral sound accompanying the spoken word. Acevedo hits his audience over the head with a hammer.

A genuine oddity about Beati Paoli is, to paraphrase Marx, the spectre haunting the film – the ‘M’ word. At no point in the entire 86 minutes, do we hear the word Mafia. I understand the sensibilities of Sicilians on the subject – my Sicilian friends have often asked me why Brits only think of organised crime when they bother to think of Sicily – however, if one is making a film about secret societies posing as upholders of people’s justice in the context of Sicilian society, it is surely impossible to ignore the links between folklore myths such as the Beati Paoli and the harsh reality of the Mafia – particularly as members of these historic crime syndicateshave explicitly appropriated the imagery of the Beati Paoli in a very public way.

There is a moment toward the end of the film, when Daniele mentions other secret societies and my ears pricked up, but he goes on to talk about the ‘freemasons’. Frankly, this redirection of the conversation comes across as weird. Possibly, Acevedo was alive to the feelings of the Palermitans he was working with or felt that it would be like making another movie entirely if he unpicked the Mafia relationship but, for me, this came across as intellectually dishonest and left an elephant in every room – especially following the promise of Content with a Conscience.

My heart so wanted this film to succeed. Acevedo and his team’s sympathy and solidarity with the Sicilians shines throughout the film. However, beyond that base level of empathy, Searching for Beati Paoli is one of the worst documentary films I have watched in a long while – a big, ripe Sicilian lemon. Acevedo has shown an impressive ability as a producer putting together an elaborate project, but there are only glimmers of skill and imagination in his directorial work. I hope he goes on to develop those in the future, and also to learn the following. One of the most important lessons from the often-gruelling experience of watching this particular project is that you should categorically never use the words ‘riveting’, ‘interesting’ or ‘fascinating’ to describe the subject you are dealing with – it is up to you to establish that much with the content you communicate to the audience. Never appear in your own film explaining why you just had to make this movie, and never, ever assume that your audience will be interested in spending its time watching close-ups of dressed stone and mortar on such insistences.

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