“It’s very odd to come back to a place where you’re from, but you’re not. It’s strange being here.” John Turturro is making his way along cobbled Sicilian streets, the camera first tracking from his front and then, waiting for him to enter under an archway, walking from sunlight into shadow. “So this is me,” he says, as he arrives at a heavy, weather-scarred wooden door, “coming back here and, you know, remembering.”
Turturro’s not-quite-recollections serve as a foundation for Rehearsal for a Sicilian Tragedy (Prove per una tragedia siciliana). Completed in 2009, a year or so before Passione, the film is episodic and energetic, part documentary and part meditation on memories as individual and collective means to identity. For Turturro, the ongoing project is his own Sicilian background, a national but also emotional and psychic foundation. And as he places his hand on the door here in Aragona, he tells you what he knows, that his grandmother Rosa lived at this address as a child, with three sisters. He can only name two of these, and as he describes the difficulties they faced, including his grandmother’s early death, when his own mother was just four years old, his eyes turn wet with tears. He’s never been here, but he is, as he insists, from here.
That sense of place—which is also a sense of faith and a sense of destiny—is everywhere in Rehearsal. Passione considered how this sense is expressed in opera in Naples, a city that “continuously produced an avalanche of music, throughout the ages.” Rehearsal begins in another place and also a step earlier, with death. At least this is how writer Andrea Camilleri opens the film, explaining the concept of tragedy, as it emerges from an understanding of death, ever imminent. “The sense of tragedy is inevitable whenever there’s a sense of death. For us in Sicily,” he asserts, seated comfortably, his face ruddy and his voice full, “Anything at all risks ending up a ‘schifio,’ an expression that means, in other words, tragically.”
But as the film goes on to show, he’s not talking about not tragedy in the doomy-gloomy sense. He’s talking about tragedy as glorious, vital excess, of sound, emotion, and vitality, expressed in acting and writing, in wind and poetry. Turturro and director Roman Paska—both on hand for a Q&A after the 8 January screening at Stranger Than Fiction—make their way from place to place in the film, as if scouting locations for a fiction film about a puppeteer. Their research includes conversations with locals about the Day of the Dead and Christmastime rituals (actress Donatella Finocchiaro queries a nun about her secret ingredients for holiday sweets, peering through a convent’s grating as the sister insists there is no secret, only sugar and almonds and a dedication to kneading).
The journey evokes memories from a range of individuals—childhood and mythic—and finds a thematic focus when Turturro visits with famous puppet artist Mimmo Cuticchio, who instructs him in the mechanics of strings and gestures. As the puppeteer is working up a performance of the romantic tragedy of Orlando, Rinaldo, and Angelica, drawn from Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem, Orlando furioso, the film pursues other versions of the play, including an utterly enchanting version performed by a group of schoolgirls. However this was staged, the result is lovely, as Turturro encourages and even directs the girls, just a bit, but mostly, he listens and watches, thrilled by their varying and very earnest interpretations of the characters. When one girl makes it through a lengthy speech, he applauds her and then turns to the camera: “It pays to be nervous sometimes, see? Sometimes people are better when they’re nervous, and when they’re not nervous, they’re not as good.” This girl is fabulous.
And so you may begin to contemplate how both experience and expectation might shape art and also identity. If Rehearsal opens with a reflection on tragedy and death, but is always already a celebration of life and hope.