Hard as it might be to describe, La Bocca del Lupo is probably one of the most beautiful and important films to have come out of Europe this century. Most refreshingly, it shows an attentiveness to, and a non-condescending sympathy for, the downtrodden of society barely seen in Italian cinema since Pasolini, and quite unique in today's European cinema. Part portrait of a city (Genoa, city of migrants as the first offscreen monologue tells us, through which Enzo wanders without recognizing it after more than twenty years spent in prison), part commemoration of its popular classes, part portrait of a couple (Enzo and Mary, a transsexual whom he met in prison and who narrates long segments of the film), it is a film completely at ease creating new rhythms, alternating between quiet contemplation and lyrical montage, between Mary's retrospective voice-over narration and recordings of audio tapes sent by her to Enzo while he was still in jail.
Ostensibly but only imperfectly a documentary, it operates outside most assumptions of the genre. Though the interplay between documentary and fiction has been one of the leitmotivs of 21st century cinema, it might be more accurate to say in this case that Pietro Marcello completely reconfigures the relationship of reality to narrative, since what is at stake, fundamentally, is the ability to narrate and remember lived experience. The whole film, in many ways, can be seen as the creation of conditions which enable Enzo and Mary to finally transmit their story. Before they are able to do that, in a sequence of astonishing simplicity that takes up the final quarter of the film, they will have had to go through the whole range of narrative processes open to the film-maker and themselves : mythology (the first scene, with its timeless unidentified voice-over, and its primal vision of man and the sea), poetry (or rather music, but we know how closely the two have long been connected, and are here joined again as opera serves as a counterpoint to archival images of the city's past working classes at work or at play), day-to-day observation, epistolary interchange (the audio tapes which Enzo and Mary used as letters to each other), and genre film-making (in a montage of posters following a comment that with a physique as distinctive as his, Enzo could have been an actor).
It is important to point out here how forgotten the experience Marcello and Enzo work together to excavate now is in Europe. With the slow disintegration of the European working class and its exportation to (mostly) Asia, films paying attention to the experience of the poverty that remains (the working class in its traditional sense may be fragmented and weak, but the number of poor and disenfranchised is only rising), and matching that investigation with formal enquiries into its representation, have been few and far-between (the Dardennes, Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche). Almost completely absent has been attention paid to the memory of the working class experience. La Bocca del Lupo emerges as an absolutely essential film in that regard precisely because it pays such close attention to the way that memory can be narrated, an attention that extends from speech (the Genovese dialect, in all its modulations) and voices (Mary's unforgettably raspy voice, whose tenderness comes across slowly but with unmistakeable power) to Marcello's own strategies, and just how far he can put them at Enzo and Mary's service. Marcello's approach here is largely contrapuntal : weaving together historic footage of the Genoa Enzo would have grown up in with images of the city today, documenting its changes, the replacement of one type of popular experience by another (with which both Enzo and Marcello seem less at ease). By never losing sight of the fundamental difference between the means open to Enzo and Mary (speech) and to himself (film) to tell the same story, and yet using these differences in a mutually enriching rather than conflictual manner, Marcello has created one of the most upright films to come out of Italy in a long time.