California Squatters Doc Below Sea Level Is the Best of the Small International Fest


Outcasts, or latter-day pioneers? The Californian flatland squatters chronicled in Gianfranco Rosi’s Below Sea Level raise questions of independence versus exile as they cultivate freedom in the shadow of necessity. Rosi’s ultimately ambivalent series of encounters—from bearded ramblers to a Vietnam vet in drag and a doctor who gave up after losing her son—won a top prize at Venice before itself disappearing (its U.S. premiere is courtesy of the old-school Festival dei Popoli’s annual beachhead at Anthology). Laid low by often self-inflicted problems, the inhabitants of the trailers and trucks secreted behind bramble are damaged but keep up camaraderie in their solitudes, psychically strafed by shots and roars from a nearby hunting ground and Air Force range. Rosi’s watchful camera starts with morning rituals (and water deliveries) before easing into the slack rhythms of their conversations, and even follows one Old West–looking wildman, “Insane Wayne,” through to a hook-up (huffily dubbed “exploitative” by the gatekeeper Variety review). Also showing, alongside contemporary Italian nonfiction, are some utterly delightful, rarely shown shorts: Joris Ivens’s gorgeous port concerto A Valparaiso (text by Chris Marker); a Pasolini-penned paean to Roman scamps at a canal watering hole, La canta delle marane; and the hard-charging waddles and Quebecois bonhomie of Michel Brault’s 1958 landmark The Snowshoers.