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Finding Magic in the Mundane – Bandits of Orgosolo + The Lost World (Blu-Ray Review)

4 min read
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When discussing the Italian greats—particularly those from the country's cinematic golden age from the 1940s to the ‘60s—the Vittorio De S– that most often springs to mind is director Vittorio De Sica, rightly lauded for his role as a leading figure in the Italian neorealist movement. Yet during this same period another Vittorio De S– emerged as a master in his own right: Vittorio De Seta, a documentary filmmaker of marked specificity, whose best works reveal everything of their subjects while barely saying a word.

This latest collection by , which includes his first fiction feature Bandits of Orgosolo (1960) and ten of his documentary shorts compiled as The Lost World, gives a complete impression of De Seta's many qualities as a documentary filmmaker; a discerning observer who pieces together patchwork impressions of a place in time to infer a dreamlike sense of that which lies beneath the whole, unspoken and half-forgotten. By contrast, Bandits of Orgosolo remains more characteristic of the work of De Seta's Italian neorealist peers, chronicling the hardships of the men and women working the land of the Sardinian region with a hard-nosed verisimilitude—few films credit their actors with such curt simplicity: ‘Starring Sardinian shepherds'. Even here, however, some of De Seta's eye for magic amongst the mundane still blooms from beneath the arid dirt.

The film's first proper shot, a wide angle pan across the mountains that stops on a medium profile of a gun slung casually over a man's arm (later revealed to be one of many local struggling shepherds), immediately captures the scope of the wilderness and the oddly futile manner in which man has attempted to impose his will over it. Cutting between the shifty eyes of the shepherds as they sit silently awaiting their prey, a deer, and the clamour of the Italian hunting dogs tracking it at high speed through the streaked lines of the undergrowth, De Seta keeps pace with the full extent of the action and relative reactions, leading feverishly to the chase's bloody denouement. What follows, however, is a film of remarkable, dreadful quiet.

After the expansive, documentary-esque opening, where the subject is the group rather than the individual and further context is provided with voiceover, we zero in on one shepherd, Michele (Michele Cossu) and his kid brother, familiarising ourselves with the hardships they face in managing their flock, and maintaining their rustic abode; a home that adjoins their sheepfold (there's no such thing as work-life balance in Orgosolo). Things take a turn for the worse, perhaps inevitability, when Michele observes a group of bandits herding pigs across the craggy hills, pigs which appear to slip through holes in the surface of the earth, hidden by men that present themselves in fable-esque terms: “We come from far away,” they later tell Michele.

Rather than shunning these outlaws, as society indicates he should, Michele offers them some tenuous hospitality, warning them to leave quickly but not rejecting them entirely. Perhaps, having faced the harshness of this environment himself (Michele refers repeatedly to the rolling impact of a “bad year”) he sees his own plight in these desperate men; the ease with which he might be forced to steal. But by accommodating the bandits and later refusing to give them up to the authorities, Michele ends up taking on the burden of the community, vilified as a pig thief despite profiting none from it, hunted by the same men who once stood watch over him; the sky a foggy white, the sheep moving across the earth like floating clouds, and between them the dark shapes of the Carabinieri, stern-faced and alert, with rifles always close to hand.

If Bandits of Orgosolo is more reminiscent of Visconti, De Sica, and Rossellini, dour and aggrieved at the fate of Italy's poorest, then De Seta's shorts drift further from reality, rendering a variety of community practices as textural tone poems. While the subjects are similar—indeed, one short titled Orgosolo's Shepherds (1958) observes the working routines of herdsmen from the same region—De Seta assembles his images in a far more abstracted fashion, limiting dialogue and near-totally omitting voiceover to instead focus on the background noises, the colours, and the rhythms that dictate the pace of life in small villages and towns across Sicily, Sardinia, and Calabria. It's in these shorts that this collection really comes to life, like stepping through an immersive looking glass into a refracted version of Italy.

Of particular interest to De Seta are the fishermen that were still operating during the 1950s, be they those involved in the shallow water swordfish-tracking hunt observed in The Age of Swordfish (1955) or the boaters who assemble a complex interconnected web of nets to lift tuna from the water in Sea Countrymen (1955). But even when his focus is fixed to one particular line of work, such as the grease-smeared men returning to the sulphur mines day-in day-out in Surfarara (1955) or the Barbagian women carefully kneading dough in A Day in Barbagia (1958), De Seta cuts to unrelated moments to provide a further rounded impression of local life. The greatest example of De Seta's ability to draw people together across separate images comes in Islands of Fire (1954), as a whole community appears to react in unison to the gale-force winds and approaching rumbles of an erupting volcano, the successive cuts shifting from realism to a communal action that transcends the logic of the event itself. A beautiful reminder of the power of cinema to open up a perspective into another world.

Special Features

  • New interview with cinematographer Luciano Tovoli (2024, 28 mins)
  • New interview with curator and filmmaker Ehsan Khoshbakht (2024, 11 mins)
  • Archival interview with Vittorio De Seta (2008, 18 mins)
  • New interview with curator and filmmaker Ehsan Khoshbakht (2024, 21 mins)
  • Trailer
  • Optional English subtitles
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Filippo Di Battista
  • Limited edition booklet featuring new writing by Roberto Curti

Bandits of Orgosolo + The Lost World released in the UK on June 24, courtesy of Radiance