8 June 2008 | Chris Knipp
People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.
The words of Dr. Otternschlag in Edmund Goulding's 1932 'Grand Hotel' are ironic, of course. Thefts, seductions, terminal illness and economic disasters run through that turbulent movie. So do Garbo, two Barrymores, Wallace Beery and Joan Crawford. Working more independently with much more limited means in the present day, Italian writer-director Salvatore Maira shot his "Grand Hotel" in a posh Turin hostelry in a single continuous take, using the digital camera's ability to go on shooting and shooting and shooting. Waltz/Valzer was made in three weeks. The crew and a small cast worked in between main mealtimes while the hotel was actually open, doing their best to avoid random appearances by paying guests. The result is a film that's much less grand but more economical than Alexei Sokurov's famous single-hot feature 'Russian Ark.'
In contrast to the cool and efficient shoot, however, Maira's screenplay alternates uneasily between the tendentious the melodramatic It focuses primarily on Assunta (Valeria Solarino) who's a sort of loosely defined waitress or room service person on her last day of work after a ten-year stint. From her encounter with a surprise visitor a rather far-fetched tear-jerker story emerges. Occasionally the camera leaves Assunta and dips in on a group of devious sports and media honchos who are talking about the state of their business, which is good, according to their main spokesman, some kind of puffy-haired pop culture analyst, because the more dishonest teams, managers, and star players are revealed to be, the more the public loves them. This plot element consists of cameo appearances and op-ed hints rather than solid action.
The film was actually shot during the time of a big 2006 "Calciopoli" Italian football scandal revealing fixes of matches and leading to much drama and some punishments to the Series A teams and forfeit of two of the Juventus team's titles. But Maira's sports/media plot is more in the order of moralistic finger-wagging and head-shaking about the decline of sports culture than an expose of anything specific. The aim is to show how venial and cynical the powers that be behind TV and sports are, but it's telling, not showing.
As for the melodrama, at the center of the movie is a more personal story designed to tug at our heartstrings. As fortune and the script would have it, on this day of all days Assunta arrives at work only to be immediately confronted by the father of Lucia (Maurizio Micheli), who's very surprised to be told she no longer works at the hotel. This downcast gentleman has been in jail in Argentina, believing the letters, which in the order of things he says were all that kept him alive, were from his daughter, who was Assunta's coworker. Not a bit of it. Lucia (Marina Rocco), an unstable young woman who wanted to become a sort of high level call girl, actually disappeared from the hotel and Assunta's life nearly ten years ago, and Assunta herself wrote all the letters. Though the script doesn't say so, perhaps she did that to unburden herself--because the stories she told in the letters were about the ups and downs of her own life--and to have an idyllic and safe parental relationship. In the brief opening sequence we see Assunta being driven to work accompanied by her mother, an extremely tiresome woman.
Much of the film consists of flashbacks showing Lucia's progressive meltdowns as witnessed by Assunta. Lucia sees women she thinks are no better than herself who consort with seedy bigwigs of the order of the media/sports honchos and share in their huge profits, and she wants a piece of that pie. The flashbacks introduce another unhappy woman who was part of the picture, Fatima (Zaira Berrazouga), a hijab-wearing Palestinan who has seen her family blown up and bursts into tears every time she is touched. It's hard to see her as succeeding even momentarily as a member of the hotel staff. She too disappeared from the hotel a long while ago. There are also a couple of scenes set in the present time involving another waitress who refuses to marry her boyfriend because she says she's unfaithful to him, and the head waiter, who gallantly offers to marry her, though he admits he's "a bit" gay. As a parallel to Dr. Otternschlag there's the concierge (Gianni Cannavacciuolo), who just happens to be retiring from his job that day, like Assunta.
'The Waltz' is a marvel of technique in its one-shot fluidity. Everything was mapped out with crews here and there around the hotel, and according to film producer Gian Mario Feletti, present at the Open Roads Lincoln Center presentation, the entire 90-minute sequence was shot ten times, and then narrowed down to four, and then one. Only a little bit of dubbing was used, he said. There wasn't much special lighting, which makes some sequences, especially early on, seem too dark, but in that sense, perhaps more naturalistic.
But though the film is coolly accomplished in its live-action continuity, its screenplay is too general in its editorializing about the corruption of sports and media, and corny and clichéd in its personal stories. With all this talk of Italian cheating, it's also hard not to wonder if the single shot actually hides some splices, as at least one Italian film writer has seemed to suggest. Maybe not, but the trouble with the concept is that the action is not in "real time" at all, even if the shooting was. It is full of flashbacks to ten years earlier, and apparently condenses a day's work by Assunta, since she arrives at the outset and departs from the job at the end. Given these weaknesses, it seems that the concept is flawed, and the trick to some extent just trumps the content. Nonetheless the film's nominations and awards for its technical feat are not undeserved.
Shown at the Open Roads: New Italian Cinema series at Lincoln Center in June 2008.