Six centuries of history are elegantly condensed into 74 minutes of screen time in The Never Ending Factory of the Duomo (L’infinita fabbrica del Duomo), a beautiful, informative documentary on the construction and upkeep of Milan’s colossal super-cathedral. Simultaneously austere and accessible, multi-hyphenate duo Massimo D’Anolfi and Martina Parenti’s delicate tribute to human persistence, craftsmanship and artistry was one of the more unheralded highlights of this year’s Locarno and will be a classy adornment to discerning non-fiction festivals over the coming months.
This is the fifth feature-length collaboration between D’Anolfi and Parenti, whose international profile has slowly but steadily expanded with each new project since 2007’s The Betrothed – Dark Matter, their study of an international weapons-testing facility in Sardinia, won the Human Rights Award at Buenos Aires’ BAFICI two years ago.
Here they train their sights on the Duomo, the second-largest cathedral in Europe and the fifth-largest church in the world. But whereas the number 1 on the global list — the Vatican basilica of St Peter’s — was completed in just 120 years, the construction of the Duomo began in 1386 and wasn’t officially completed until 1965, five years after it played a supporting role in Luchino Visconti’s classic Rocco and His Brothers; the cathedral is also an eye-catching backdrop in Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love (2009).
As D’Anolfi and Parenti make abundantly clear, however, a structure as complex and gigantic as the Duomo will never be truly “finished,” as the job of maintenance is inescapably perpetual. Their primary focus is on the marble statuary which so distinctively crowns the cathedral’s myriad spires — repaired, renewed or even replaced by legions of anonymous workers, toiling away far from the eyes of the visiting public. The directors make the most of what appears to be access-all-areas liberty, poking into all manner of obscure nooks and crannies in search of worthwhile material and surprising vistas.
The loosely-structured results will one day make an ideal double-bill companion to Francesco Clerici’s 77-minute Hand Gestures, a more linear, fly-on-the-wall study of a long-established Milan foundry which picked up the critics’ prize at this year’s Berlinale Forum. D’Anolfi and Parenti likewise quietly celebrate the painstaking efforts of these skilled artisans — whose own wordlessness feels somewhat artificial, given the famous garrulousness of Italians — placing them within their long, noble historical tradition.
D’Anolfi’s own visuals are notable for the crisp, unfussy effectiveness of their compositions, consistently achieving a depth and richness of image that’s not often found in digital cinematography and is testament to the talent of color-corrector Daniel Pallucca, from Milan post-production outfit Iggy Post. D’Anolfi is also responsible for the sparing electronic score which — in harmony with the whistling wind — proves a surprisingly smooth fit for bygone atmospheres conjured by immersion in ancient stonework, and the navigation of musty chambers populated by spookily lifelike human forms.
Negativized, antique stills provide a further source of aesthetic pleasure, while those seeking concrete details of the Duomo’s history are catered for by brief textual extracts from guide-books — their admiring, awestruck tone dovetailing with the directors’ reverently celebratory, occasionally exultant approach. It’s easy to be swept along, as The Never Ending Factory of the Duomo, despite its ecclesiastical subject-matter, is the kind of documentary which can be appreciated by those of any faith — or none.
Production company: Montmorency Film
Directors / Producers / Screenwriters / Editors: Massimo D’Anolfi, Martina Parenti
Cinematographer: Massimo D’Anolfi
Sound: Martina Parenti
Composer: Massimo D’Anolfi
Sales: Montmorency Film, Milan
No Rating, 74 minutes