Italian playwright, actress, and theatre director Eleonora Danco conducts a voiceover conversation with herself in her debut feature N-Capace, which screens tonight as part of Open Roads: New Italian Cinema at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Danco revisits her southeastern hometown of Terracina in an attempt to exorcise her adolescent haunts of troublesome associations. Dressed in white-striped pajamas and wearing the expression of a discontented child on her face, Danco wanders the streets in search of her lost memories, but they’re nowhere to be found: the city has changed. Old sites are being demolished and replaced with shopping malls, loved ones have passed on, and it seems like there is no trace left of those once-familiar alleyways and squares where she dreamed and played as a child. Danco hates herself for even wanting to remember, and occupies empty spots in the city with a metal bed in order to sleep and hide her tormented face against the sheets.

“You’re a fucking lost soul. You don’t know how to live, you haven’t learned,” Danco dramatically cries to herself, full of self-reproach. But a few moments later, a glimmer of hope appears as she revels in the sun and acknowledges “the efforts that other people make.” Danco goes beyond the solitude of introspection by interweaving fragments of her quest with intimate exchanges with Terracina locals. In these deeply humanistic vignettes, Danco subtly moves between the teenaged and the elderly—most of her subjects are over 80, including her grumpy yet sentimental 83-year-old father. Juxtaposing the insouciance of the young with grizzled grey-hairs, Danco queries these two groups on diverse subjects such as their first sexual experience, expectations from life, views on death, and the possibility of an afterlife, to which the elders generally reply with pessimism or melancholy. But as innocent and carefree as the teens may seem—a 13-year-old named Giacomo believes he will end up in heaven and walk around in a white costume sewn by the angels—many are in fact tough-minded laborers who go to school in the morning and perform manual labor in the afternoon out of financial necessity. (Giancarlo is a bricklayer while Francesco, in his late teens, is a pizza maker.) Having worked all their lives for the same reason—most abused by parents and spouses along the way—the aged wear that fatigue in their faces: the wrinkles of the dignified octogenarian Mafalda, as if carved by Michelangelo’s hands, bear witness to the countless battles and blows of an arduous existence.


But time heals some wounds, even in the isolated Terracina. Now that 70 or more years have gone by, some townsfolk recall their childhood traumas with a smile or even laughter, like one lady who chuckles as she recounts how her mother used to beat her by tying her feet to the table. But this laughter is not without a tragic undertone, since however quiet or distant the memory may be, the reality it describes will always retain its bitter character and cannot be altered. At any rate, N-Capace is not a danse macabre; on the contrary, it embodies more of a celebratory spirit. Drawing on her theatrical background to create spaces of freedom and self-expression for her subjects, Danco has them dance (often without musical accompaniment), sing, and reenact moments from their past, like calling out to their mother as their eight-year-old selves. This allows Danco’s subjects to have a genuine, if not liberating experience with their bodies, and form a bond with her that goes beyond a conventional interviewer-interviewee rapport. She dresses the young in togas, like mythological figures straight out of Fellini’s Satyricon (the girls resemble nymphs with flower crowns on their heads), and photographs the elderly in carefully composed tableaux vivants in homes or in nature. One of Danco’s most memorable creations is the shot of an old woman covered with autumn leaves, her face emerging from her buried neck with the serenity of a Botticelli model.

The lively tone of the townspeople’s sections sharply contrast with the gloominess of most of Danco’s solo scenes, which includes a futile attempt to rewind time by rolling in the grass, synchronized with Markus Acher’s synth score. Wearing a toga and carrying a pickaxe, she moves along ghostlike, standing in the middle of a busy street unnoticed like an invisible angel of death; at other moments, she strikes bricks on the pavement in an attempt to revolt against the growing urbanization that is disfiguring her hometown. “I was here first, I was here first!” she theatrically insists, momentarily reclaiming her perished youth with this energetic outburst, kicking and stomping. Occasionally anguished to the point of madness, Danco lets her inner conflict command the film’s form—episodes follow one another without any apparent logic. Danco is instead more concerned with the poetic possibilities of editing, and sometimes it’s easy to get lost navigating this scattered structure and the labyrinthine nature of her fast, fluctuating thoughts.


Despite the dense, fragmentary style in which it is presented, N-Capace’s scenario is actually quite simple: a woman returns to her hometown, unable to recognize anything she sees, even the house she grew up in, and haunted by memories of her dead mother, she becomes more and more obsessed with the fragility of existence. These anxieties about the fleeting nature of life are familiar to all of us, and get reflected and expanded upon in Danco’s encounters with Terracina’s residents. By blurring the borders between personal and collective identity, Danco creates an incisive and profound hybrid documentary, reminiscent of the iconic Chronicle of a Summer in its ability to bring together and immerse us in the lives of more than a dozen memorable characters. Comparisons with Chronicle of a Summer are particular because Danco, like Rouch and Morin before her, treats the camera like a magnifying glass in search of a truth that’s been locked up, in certain instances, over entire lifetimes. Danco encourages her subjects to let down their guard and speak from their hearts, turning the interview experience into a purifying and cathartic confession. Sometimes, making a painful memory public is the only way to come to terms with a burdensome past once and for all. N-Capace aims to initiate healing not just for its director, but for everyone.