We could be forgiven if, in the opening minutes of Alessio de Righi and Matteo Zoppis' 2015 documentary film Il solengo, we were excited to meet the protagonist Mario de Marcella. Mario is a fascinating character— a lonely hermit wandering the untamed forests of central Italy, a hangover from our natural past, an exile from civilization. Mario is a human "solengo" (a wild boar isolated from the pack), and everyone in town seems to have a theory about his dramatic expulsion.
But as the minutes tick by, we begin to despair. Where is this Mario de Marcella? Will we ever get to see him, hear him? Is he alive? Is he dead?
Mario de Marcella is a memory, a rumor. He is an endless conversation carried on by white-haired men. Some of them have seen him. Or rather, they have seen someone who's seen him. Either way they're here to tell us exactly who they think he is.
Though Il solengo wishes to tell the story of Mario de Marcella, it must rely on the testimony of others. The film confronts five retirees in a remote hunting lodge, weaving their declarations and speculations into what might be termed a Rashomon 2.0. As in the great Kurosawa film, the individual accounts of Il solengo conflict with each other, depicting a gallery of assorted faces rather than a coherent portrait of Mario. Some seem more credible while others are totally far-fetched. One hunter-witness actually admits to lying, undermining our trust in his whole tale.
But who is Mario de Marcella? Il solengo cannot say. It can only gravitate around the story of Mario and the things that are said about him.
This all reminds me of a problem that we historians face, a problem I'll call "the problem of the archive." When I say "archive" I don't mean that basement full of dusty folders and tarnished manuscripts. I mean, more broadly, the massive body of evidence that supposedly proves things about the past— fossils, birth certificates, deeds, records. The archive is a "problem" because, like the hunters in Il solengo, it may fail to tell us about the past. It may contradict itself. It may even admit to lying.
Now, there is clearly a difference between the gossip of rifle-toting old-timers and, say, a migration record produced by government bureaucracy. But if the migration record seems somehow more objective, try asking different questions. Who was the migrant? (Really, Who?) Why did he or she leave? Whom did they leave behind? What did they think about politics, religion, love? The archive is good at answering some questions but bad at answering many.
The archive is created when powerful people record information about less powerful people. At various moments in history colonized populations have withheld their names from colonizers, lest this latter group record the names and gain power over their bodies (unfortunately their resistance doesn't seem to have made much of a difference). As it turns out, the archive may tell us very little about the substance of its "contents"— it does, however, tell us a lot about itself.
Is Il solengo really aware of all this confusion? It is difficult to say for certain. But there are a number of details included in the film that might tempt us to say yes.
Think about Mario. We want to know first-hand who he really is. We want to see him. We want to hear him. We want to know how long his beard is. But we are "stuck," so to speak, with the testimony of the hunters. They too are searching for Mario (after all, they are hunters and he is a boar), but the more they search the more we feel the need to abandon their company. Like an imperial expedition from nineteenth-century Europe, these hunters are shocked by Mario's apparent barbarism. What is to be done? Can Mario become civilized? If not, must he be marveled at like a bon sauvage?
When the hunters tell Mario's story they create an archive of his life. But their testimony, like the historical archive, is incomplete and contradictory. Far from uncovering the real Mario, the hunters bury him in hearsay. T hey monopolize his story, leaving us no choice but to rely on their imprecisions. They are the old white men, the image of authority, the masters of the archive. Theirs is the right to speak, theirs the right to create knowledge.
We must then reconcile ourselves with the disappointment of knowing we will never meet Mario de Marcella. After all, we are entertained by the hunters' stories— who cares about the truth? But just when we give ourselves over to the fictions of the archive, Il solengo gives us Mario.
First, his voice. A raspy poem, the fragile contours of a biography. An unfocused image, a walk in the woods, Mario's cave. Various tools. The landscape. Is this what lies beyond the archive? Are these the things that speak truth? A man, laying on his side in a hospital bed. Is it Mario? He's dying. So too is the film.
If Il solengo is about the problem of the archive, the last scene seems to propose a solution. By finally showing us Mario the film claims to overcome the limits of the hunters' testimony.
But the sound is muffled, the image blurred, the film might be asleep. Is this a dream? Is Il solengo dreaming around the archive? Who knows— but if it is, the implications should give us historians pause. If we can't know the past through the archive can we "dream" around its limits? Maybe "dream" is just a metaphor for careful interpretation. But even then, how can we be sure that we've arrived at the truth?
Maybe Il solengo shows us Mario de Marcella; maybe it illustrates the hunters' testimony. We've heard accounts both probable and improbable. And after all, the image of Mario reflects even their most outrageous contradictions.