Nominated for best debut feature at this year’s other London film festival, Raindance, The Repairman tells the story of Scanio (Daniele Savoca), a man who ekes out a living fixing machines for an absentee boss, and whose fate in life it is to be perennially criticised by his friends.
Scanio meets and enters into a relationship with Helena (Hannah Croft), but, ultimately, their relationship falters because Scanio cannot show much passion for her – obsessed instead as he is with his job, or at least with trying to maintain his job.
If the above synopsis seems brief, this is because not that much really happens in The Repairman. But instead of being a film about plot, The Repairman is, rather, a film about a certain mood or mode of living.
Put most succinctly, the mood or mode of the film is that shared by the main character, Scanio: a sort of strange, naïve but upbeat melancholy. ‘Upbeat melancholy’ probably sounds like a contradiction in terms. Well, perhaps does not so much sound like one as it actually is one. But this is because the terms are not quite sufficient to convey the mood/mode of the film – and the difficulty that one has with conveying the mood/mode of the film is in fact what makes the film particularly unique and worthy of a brief blog on a Raindance film amid what I hope will be a few posts about films from the ‘bigger’ London Film Festival.
One could potentially characterise The Repairman as bittersweet, but this is a term one might use for a Mike Leigh film or some such – and while there is humour in Mike Leigh, his films are not (often) as overtly comic as is The Repairman. The film features scene after scene of slow charm – wry observations of dinner party conversation, quirks of habit, the refusal to conform – mixed in with very un-Mike Leigh-like quasi-fantasy elements.
Put in terms of cinematic precedents, The Repairman might be defined as a mix of Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain/Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, France/Germany, 2001) and the works of cineastes like Nanni Moretti and Jacques Tati.
The Amélie elements are suggested by the interest in technology shown by the film and the way in which these are interspersed with romantic elements. It is a staple of Jeunet’s work, especially his collaborations with Marc Caro (particularly Delicatessen, France, 1991 and La cité des enfants perdus/The City of Lost Children, France/Germany/Spain, 1995) for his characters to be working on machines – and this is of course one of Scanio’s main pastimes, creating/inventing new and better machines from older, neglected and/or broken ones.
The repurposing of older machines means that The Repairman oddly has vague elements of steampunk, though it is far from being a steampunk film; this is because, as per Jeunet’s films, there seems to be a sort of nostalgia for times past. But here Mitton’s film diverges from Jeunet’s work, because while Jeunet incorporates high end digital special effects to (re)create a mythical past, Mitton’s film on the whole eschews high end special effects.
And this is not simply for budgetary reasons. Indeed, Mitton’s career has seen him work as part of the digital visual effects team on a number of big budget productions, including Troy (Wolfgang Petersen, USA/Malta/UK, 2004) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Tim Burton, USA/UK, 2005).
Indeed, The Repairman features at its outset a significant digital special effect in the form of a duck that is flying over the fields of northern Italy as Scanio and one of his friends drive through the countryside. However, the duck soon hits a overhead electricity wire and falls to the ground, lifeless.
No doubt this image can be read in multiple different ways – including as a metaphor for Scanio’s spiritual development. However, it also seems to encapsulate the film’s nostalgia: unlike Jeunet’s work, here is a film that wants to achieve its effects in an old-fashioned, ‘lo-fi’ fashion – and the choice is a deliberate one because digital special effects are kept to an absolute minimum.
As a result of the divergence, then, between The Repairman and Amélie – in spite of the resemblance between them that is also useful to convey the experience of watching the film – the film moves more into the realm of the likes of Nanni Moretti and Jacques Tati.
Like Jeunet, Moretti and Tati are also well known for their nostalgia – Moretti for a time when films were simple, Tati for a less technologised and impersonal world. The Repairman shows an appreciation of technology – but its appreciation is what we might call ‘holistic’ in the sense that Scanio is all about resuscitating old, broken machines, rather than following the (capitalist) logic of casting out the old through the creation of both the new and the obsolescent. That is, Scanio loves all machines, not just the new ones that contemporary fetishists of technology seem uniquely and exclusively to endorse.
Here the film’s slow pace, together with its unhappy-happy ending (spoilers – but the guy does not get the girl), become important aspects of the film, even if both likely make it a harder film to ‘sell’ to audiences. For, the system that drives technology to be a celebration only of the new at the expense of the old is the same system that demands constant and rapid bursts of excitement, grand spectacles, and the myth that everything is always only ever improving.
By deliberately eschewing spectacle – the CGI duck is removed from the film in the first scene (although it does return) – Mitton seems also to celebrate slowness, to find a loving humour in slowness, which makes the film a sort of ‘slow comedy’ – with comedy not often being linked to other manifestations of what we might term ‘slow cinema’ – which refers to a cinema that explicitly rejects the ethos of the technology-driven and rapid-paced crash bang wallop mainstream (Hollywood and its imitators).
The myth of the happy ending – perhaps even the myth of the heterosexual couple – is also challenged for similar reasons: that technology only gets better and that the old stuff can be discarded suggests that happiness increases as the world is always ending. Mitton, however, rejects this, as Helena ultimately rejects Scanio. Scanio’s ability to see beauty in obsolete machines – and his ability to recycle them in unique and original ways – suggests a different time, a different rhythm of life – one grounded in technology and the contemporary world, but with a different approach to it.
In short, why not be unhappy? Perhaps one can derive greater happiness from being oneself – a fetishist of old machines? – than one can from trying to conform to society’s norms (settling into a heterosexual union).
Here we have shades of Tati and shades of Moretti. In Caro Diario/Dear Diary (Moretti, Italy/France, 1993), Nanni (playing himself) comes across Jennifer Beales (playing herself) in Rome. A discussion arises (as far as I recall – it has been a long time since I saw the film) over the term sciemo – a term applied to Nanni and which is translated as ‘whimsical’. This is perhaps a term for The Repairman as well. For, as per Moretti’s film, The Repairman also has an idiosyncratic slowness, an insistence that life will – can – only be lived at one’s own pace. For life lived to the beat of someone else’s drum is not life at all.
The same is often the case with Tati: in Play Time (France/Italy, 1967), we see clearly how the rhythms of modern life are crazy in comparison to that of the famous Monsieur Hulot (played by Tati himself). And while the same Hulot in fact, like Scanio, is involved in the creation of ingenious vehicles in Trafic (Italy/France, 1971), the film is also a celebration of slowness, learning to love breakdowns, and living with the consequences of that.
For, as Hulot is fired at the end of Trafic (all of Tati’s films have ‘bittersweet’ endings), so, too does Scanio not find happiness as per mainstream movies at the end of The Repairman. Although Hulot may seemingly walk away with the girl in Trafic, and although Scanio does not walk away with the girl in The Repairman, nonetheless, Tati and Mitton seem to share a love for slowness and a celebration of what others might deem to be failure – since this is also a part of life, and if we are to know and to love living, then we must acknowledge, accept and even love this part of life, too.
Tati himself plays Hulot – and Moretti plays a screen version of himself in Dear Diary (among other films). Although Mitton is not in his own film, nonetheless The Repairman declares at its opening that this is a true story – or that this happened to ‘me’, anyway. Who ‘me’ is, is unclear; it could be Scanio already talking, or it could be Mitton from ‘beyond’ the diegesis of the film.
Either way, one gets the impression of a deeply personal film having been made. Quirky, slightly hard to understand, but valuable for those very attributes, for its determination to go at its own rhythm, its determination not necessarily to have a happy resolution, and yet its determination to find warmth, humanity and humour in (spite of) the situations presented to us, makes of The Repairman a unique and precious film.