Viewer’s Discretion: ‘Faces Places’ and ‘Sacro GRA’

‘Faces Places’ (Amazon, Apple, Google Play, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube)

This gentle documentary brings together 89-year-old New Wave film director Agnes Varda and 33-year-old street artist JR for a journey through France for a collaboration that captures what they see and who they meet, and what they decide to affix to walls in commemoration.

Varda, who made her name with a dark neo-realism in films like 1961’s “Cl o from 5 to 7” and 1984’s “Vagabond,” is an intelligent, though somewhat wacky lady with her two-toned hair and her candid rapport with people. JR is shielded, though well-humored, and pretty much what you expect when you hear the words “French street artist.” Together, they make an unlikely pair as they travel through areas of France to talk to people, to hear their stories and to memorialize them in public displays.

JR has a fascinating process. Photos of the figures are taken then — in his whimsical mobile dark room painted to resemble a Polaroid camera — developed, printed and dispensed. The images are then plastered onto the walls in such a way that they take on the textures of the masonry while retaining the human figures clearing. It’s a beautiful melding of humans and objects as one in the realm of history and memory.

In one particularly touching segment, the pair meet the last inhabitant of row houses meant for miners, and talk not only to her about her life there, but to men in the village who worked in the mine. But Varda and JR visit many places you aren’t likely to encounter on your typical trip to France, introduce you to people you aren’t likely to meet on your own and uncover the stories that you would never find out anyhow. Because of the paper material, the murals are destined to disappear, but this film is a charming testament to them and the process that gave them life.

‘Sacro GRA’ (Apple, Netflix, Vudu)

This elegant documentary follows Italian filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi on a two-year trip around the GRA, or Grande Raccordo Anulare, a ring-shaped highway surrounding Rome. But this isn’t your typical road trip since it doesn’t have any narrative, either that of Rosi’s experience or any other. What it does have are some disparate scenes and characters who eventually blend to create a tone for a stretch of highway that might otherwise appear faceless.

Calling it a documentary seems unfair. It’s more an album if you consider that it’s made up of a series of portraits joined together to craft a more substantial identity from the individuals. Rosi is never intrusive, and most of his subjects are monologuing, so we’re offered the chance to get to know them far better than we ever would if we were driving the 42 miles of the GRA.

There’s the upper crust who rents out his estate to film crews. There’s the eel fisherman who also sits in his kitchen and has extended monologues with his wife, who is otherwise disposed on her computer. There are a couple of haughty, giggling prostitutes and an ambulance guy who’s trying to shrug off his adrenaline. There are some others, too, and there’s no explanation for why they are presented to us.

In many ways, Rosi’s film is framed by segments of an entomologist who, in his attempt to stop insects from eating trees, records their sounds and then offers the results of his research as examples of insect conversations. He is an eavesdropper, an alien swooping in with his technology to reproduce snippets of insectoid interaction to present proof of order within something that, to the outsider, might make no sense at all.

That’s really what Rosi is doing with his characters. Film is a medium for research and understanding, just like any other tools, and science is the practice of revealing the order in anarchy, and Rosi puts them both together to utilize in a most human way.

It’s the tapestry of life. It’s that simple, just presented to be appreciated on its own terms.

Originally published at

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