A Dog's Life

in 65th Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Julia Teichmann

When the artist takes a small knife with a blade just heated on a flame and cuts carefully alongside the ear of the lying dog, blood-red drops start falling from it; the cracking noise of the melting wax sounds like burning flesh. In the background we hear classical music – on the radio, as it is revealed a little bit later, a piano concert by Sergej Prokofiev. The low sound from the radio will occur again from time to time in Francesco Clerici’s Hand Gestures (Il gesto delle mani), and there are also all sorts of working resonances. People don’t speak much in the Fonderia Artistica Battaglia, a bronze foundry in the center of Milan. Founded in 1913, it is one of the oldest foundries in Italy. But, compared to the history of the trade, it is still quite young: The making of bronzes has not changed much since the bronze age – in particular, the lost-wax casting process.

What – in terms of capturing old trades – could be an interesting, but in the long (feature length) run boring observation of a work in progress, accompanied by the making-of an artist’s vision (here Velasco Vitali’s), is anything but this. The young director, who studied art history, is luring the viewer into a synesthetical experience, a metaphysical meditation of sight and sound. All the while capturing the history of the procedure he is capturing history itself: and art as its specific memory.

The editing imitates the work-process, where the hands and their cautious movements are of course the centre of attention. Admirably out of arthouse-fashion – no long shots, rather short sequences, multiple changes of perspective, reminding of the soviet rhythmic montage from the 1920s also used in Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of A Metropolis – the editing is worshipping an irreplaceable manual process, whose skills are passed on in oral tradition from master to pupil over centuries.

Black and white images from 1967 blend in with the all these reds, from the clay’s light terracotta to the glowing red of the melted bronze, enriching the composition with the same movements, the same sounds we see and hear in the contemporary working place (Clerici happened to find an abandoned film reel in the canteen of the foundry after having searched several archives for similar material).

The red wax is “lost”, then in a form made of clay, patiently applied by a quiet master, whose gestures seem to follow a secret choreography: the bronze sculpture, a prone dog, is then born out of it and yet not ready. It still has to go through various shades of brown, it will be shiny, it will be dark, a leg will break, seams will be smoothed… and at the end the dog will be lying on a blanket in the trunk of a car, like its real life counterparts.

When its final destination is reached it is time for the last image. Not a shaggy-dog story but the perfect point, which opens the film for another new perspective: on art, on the hard work, the effort and passion it took and it takes to make an artistic vision come true, and on the precious experience: the blessing to be, as the one viewing it, the last link in a long chain – which, of course, simultaneously applies to the film.

Edited by Neil Young