Feature Documentary Reviews

Il Nemico in Piazza [Enemy in the Square] (2020) – 3 stars

Directors: Marzia De Luca & Dario Salvetti

Running time:  1hr 12mins

The question of the nature of evil and of a person’s responsibility for their own actions has increasingly come into prominence in the last century, with the rise of political violence. This is often drift-netted and given the label – terrorism. Media coverage of political violence is invariably dictated by a society’s dominant ideology. The old mad or bad characterisation in my own country, the UK, tends to break as follows – violence by the white supremacist far-right is portrayed as simple isolated acts of insanity, while violence by Islamic extremists or, previously, Irish nationalists, is pictured as pure evil.

However, a paradox confronts the media – if a person, it will almost always be a male, spends their time immersing themselves in propaganda that vilifies and demands the expulsion of certain sections of society on grounds of race or migration status and then chooses to act on that propaganda, they are making a considered rational decision. The problem for the hegemonic media culture of the UK that presents a facade of tolerant inclusivity is, with the growing integration of an anti-immigration rhetoric into mainstream political discourse, it becomes more difficult when, say, a socially liberal politician is hacked to death, or a migrant worker is murdered, to package the motivation as mere insanity.

Mutatis mutandis, the question is a central concern in Enemy in the Square, Marzia De Luca and Dario Salvetti’s uneven but enthralling documentary about the problems faced by migrant workers in the Italian city of Florence. The filmmakers take us back to events on a day in December 2011 when two Senegalese street vendors were shot dead, and several others wounded by a lone gunman in a public square in the city. De Luca and Salvetti show us the local media response: because of the lovely tolerant place that Florence is, this must have been an act of insanity by a lone crazed individual. The film proceeds to unpick that media myth, however, and situate the experience of the city’s migrant workers within a context of institutionalised racism and grinding economic exploitation.

The filmmakers use a pretty much standard documentary format; talking heads, television archive footage and their own filming of life in the city and its street politics since the events of 2011. All this is underscored by a nicely understated yet engaging narration, courtesy of Gianluca Conti. As the film explores the media coverage and the somewhat indolent police investigation into the murder, we learn that the lone crazed killer was a member of a fascist organisation and had friendly contacts within the police.

The organisation is the Casa Pound, which seems to be a very post-modern fascist group – with its eye-catching turtle logo, and its deft talent name checking of the US poet Ezra Pound (a figure of the early modernist poetry movement, and a fascist collaborator in Italy during World War II.) Later on, we meet other fascist or extreme right groups – Forza Nuova and the Brothers of Italy, there is footage of a TV interview with the latter’s leader, Giorgia Meloni.

While that is all valid content, it is not especially accessible for those not well-versed in the subject. I felt it would have been helpful for the wider international audience, that I assume the filmmakers are aiming to reach, to have had some sort of narrative on the origins and development of the different fascist groups. Indeed, the film needs a broader contextualisation, explaining the continuing survival of fascism within the immediate post-World War II Italian settlement.

Moving on, the film goes through the events of 2011, and gives an account of the struggle by the Italian-left to counter a growing fascist presence in the city centre – a presence based around the opening of a Casa Pound bookshop. A trap the filmmakers do fall into is one common to many political documentaries – there is an inordinate amount of footage of political demonstrations. I am sure most readers have experienced the buzz of being in a demo – it feels like one of the most exciting things in the world. The problem is that in cinematic terms, from the outside demos, are boring to watch – unless there is some serious violence or a Situationist disruption of quotidian realities.

After all this, for the final segment, De Luca and Salvetti take us to the periphery – to the social housing and squats in abandoned industrial units where the migrant workers eke out a precarious existence. For me, this segment in the most deprived parts of the city is the most powerful part of the movie. The interviews are beautifully framed – the migrants’ predicament is voiced powerfully in their own words rather than having expert talking heads lecturing us.

De Luca and Salvetti are jointly credited with the editing and cinematography – overall I found their work excellent. On the editing, they assimilate the TV archive footage almost seamlessly. I enjoyed some of the shots of the cityscape. There are issues with pacing, though.

I am always wary when I see a caption reading Act 1 – it shows the filmmaker wishes to impose a limiting structure on the viewer’s reading of the piece and it often indicates that the director has their own doubts as to whether the work can stand as a coherent whole. This is the case with Enemy in the Square – De Luca and Salvetti have effectively crammed two movies into one.

We have the original 2011 murders and its investigation plus the mad/bad question in Act 1, Un folle gesto improviso, then the examination of the migrant workers’ lives in Act 2, Tutta questa violenza. I feel the filmmakers have been overambitious and could have made two shorter but more effective movies out of each of the two Acts. I realise that the project has been a long time in gestation since the murders in 2011 and there is an internal reference in a caption to a murder of a migrant during final editing in 2018 – so funding and production contingencies may have forced their hand.

On top of this, my final concern is with the film’s soundtrack. De Luca and Salvetti choose to use the work of Marco Rovelli, a winsome folksinger with guitar and Il Rumore Della Tregua, a proto-U2 landscape rock group with a penchant for portentous, symbolist song lyrics. I am guessing that the musicians are colleagues with the filmmakers in the struggle against fascism and that their music was included to provide a heroic revolutionary energy to proceedings. This carries two problems, however.

The first is translation. Obviously if you are an Italian viewer, this is an irrelevant gripe, but my heart goes out to anyone translating lyric poetry for international audiences. It is one of the most challenging intellectual exercises around. Hopefully in their Italian rendition, the lyrics are much better – but to an anglophone audience reading these subtitles, the impact of almost every line is lost in translation. For example, one English write-up of a Rovelli song contains the line: Look at the clothes of the advancing goose. Another suggests: The void of the countryside killed cats and dogs.

The second, arguably greater problem is that authentic revolutionary songs emerge organically from the heart of the struggle. In this case, though, the pieces – which use traditional European musical arrangements – are superimposed as anthems for the migrant workers. We hear Moroccan, Malian, and Senegalese spoken voices in interviews but no African songs of resistance. While it is impossible to say from here whether there would be music like this for the filmmakers to source in Florence, in their absence it would probably have improved the film’s authenticity to forgo the folk songs entirely.

In spite of the above, in Enemy in the Square, De Luca and Salvetti have produced a valuable record of the struggle for a better world in their city. The second half of the film where the migrant workers explain their predicament as superfluous factors of labour is the most lucid and vibrant Marxist analysis of exploitation that I have seen on film in a long while. Capitalists love free movement of capital but the ardour for free movement of labour seems to have dimmed of late. The words of one of the interviewees hit me and will stay with me – divisions between workers are a big problem which affects human dignity…we are all workers, there must be no first and second-class workers.

Leave a Reply