A Council Housing office in Naples manages about 40,000 apartments around the city. This same office goes from doing a serious job, to verbally attacking its customers, from trying to help those in need, to refusing to bend any kind of bureaucratic rule, and from explaining everything repeatedly, to just taking a deep breath, nodding and looking blankly into the camera. This might be the most decadent public office to work in, and the employees seem to have been forgotten there for years – but at the same time if feels like a bohemian street theatre, with every character playing a very flamboyant role, and with the result being a brilliant film that is so simple yet a work of absolute genius.
As far as I’m concerned, Aperti al Pubblico was by far the best documentary film in this year’s Festival Dei Popoli in Florence. Made by Silvia Bellotti, a beautiful and intelligent filmmaker whom I had the pleasure of meeting during the festival, this is a film that goes from subtle humour, to farce and from moments of kindness and warmth, to unnecessary rudeness. One thing it never loses is its absurdity. Aperti al Pubblico never becomes normal. It doesn’t want to, it’s not interested in it, but more than anything I don’t think it can. This sense of humour (very familiar to a Greek like me), is southern Europe at its best and worst. You don’t “get” half of what is said – but that’s exactly the half that makes it great.
There are countless moments to treasure, but two scenes are unquestionably the most momentous. The first is the moment where a widow visits the office and mentions in passing that soon she will die too and go to find her husband. A conversation at this point starts between the public employee and the customer, turning gradually into a discussion on life and death and whether this woman will indeed find her husband in the afterlife. There is doubt in the air, as more people from the desks around join into the conversation, until it’s concluded that she should carry on living and then when her time comes, see whether she does indeed find him.
The scene is brilliant because it’s so real and natural. These people are not acting. They are not interpreting lines. They are actually coming up with these things, so fast, so unexpectedly, so uncompromisingly. Not even a trace of self-consciousness or reserve, for which a lot of the credit goes to the filmmaker. If Silvia Bellotti hadn’t developed such a tight relationship with this office and its people, then the camera would be making most of them lack in confidence. But a camera that seems to always be there, and a woman who is as kind and respectful as this documentarian, bring out the best of you. And in fact, her subjects demonstrate pure spontaneity, and the freest kind of comedy, for she has become invisible after a while, granting them absolute autonomy.
The final sequence is long and perfectly paced, steadily unfolding its madness right in front of us. I’m not going to say much, as you have to see it to believe it, but this is where Aperti al Pubblico leaves every other film behind. It is the moment when an old woman comes to the office to complain about some stranger having registered her name as the owner of the old woman’s house and is now looking to kick her out of what is rightfully hers. The employees of course rush to help her and do everything they can to get to the bottom of her situation. When they finally do, the office worker turns and stares into the camera – confused, amazed, played-out, defeated. This moment is worth everything.
It is not the easiest task getting hold of Aperti al Pubblico with English subtitles, but I promise that it is worth every bit of the effort. Even if you speak Italian, don’t try to go Original Sound with this one, as most of it is in the Neapolitan dialect. However do watch it and more than once. It takes a couple of viewings to get its full comedy, before you start observing the faces and expressions of each character. Then the fun is never ending.
Watch a trailer of Aperti al Pubblico here:
Silvia Bellotti at IMDb