Set around the edges of the Grande Raccordo Annulare (the “GRA” of the film’s title), Italy’s most extensive urban highway, documentarian Gianfranco Rosi observes the lives of several fascinating characters as they go through the motions of their day-to-day lives.

The GRA itself, a ring road around Rome, is the closest Rosi’s documentary gets to any kind of a narrative through-line. Briskly edited by Jacopo Quadri, we are given glimpses of everyone from paramedics operating an ambulance along the highway to an eccentric tree doctor who studies the damage parasitic insects are doing to palm trees next to the ring road.

It’s a deceivingly simple piece of work that slowly, but surely, becomes as fascinating as the sum of its parts. Some characters evolve more than others. A father and his daughter living in a building sandwiched between the highway and an airport are introduced in a particularly inspired, Edward Hopper-fused sequence in which we observe many different types of families from each of their window frames. We follow one of the ambulance paramedics home and watch him unwind from a day on the road.  There’s no manufactured drama to these moments, just a man folding clothes and talking to his family after a long day of work.

Others, such as a fisherman and his wife making a living on a body of water next to the GRA and a local, cigar-chewing priest with a penchant for solitaire feel overwrought and half-baked at the same time. Luckily, Rosi maintains the film’s brisk pace with beautiful imagery against the highway as a transitional tool. The opening of the film consists of some out-of-focus beauty shots of the GRA, cars zipping by transformed into a whirl of color. Not soon after, we are shown a herd of sheep grazing in a field as traffic begins to mount on the highway behind them.

And while the film occasionally stumbles with its subjects (everything comes to a screeching halt during a segment in which two bar dancers make chatter in the back room) its continued focus on the small, sometimes poignant, moments in these day-to-day lives and the small, sometimes poignant, world they live in works on both a micro and macro level. This overall idea of big and small is nicely encompassed through an elegant comment from the GRA’s resident tree doctor, comparing the struggle for his palm trees to survive the parasites to the human soul’s struggle to stay pure.

It’s a small film with big ideas, and certainly the most interesting documentary about a highway you’re likely ever to see.

Sacro GRA premiered at Venice Film Festival, where it won the Golden Lion, and hasn’t been acquired for U.S. distribution yet.

Grade: B+

No more articles