Cease & Concern: on Franco Piavoli’s “Voices Through Time” (1996)

A stylized shot from Franco Piavoli's "Voices Through Time", depicting a young boy entering a deep and dark forest.

(In continuation of a series, preceded by Lancelot du Lac…)

Is it the special privilege of the filmmaker—met with the same contest against history that all human lives strive within and against—to capture those flashes of the contemporary moment, and, as if to ward against time’s encroachment, present to succeeding generations the faces of their past? For those artists, and for us, cinema, whether dealing with fact or fiction, becomes genuine documentation, no less genuine than the scholarly textbook or an archival newsreel. The imagery, and the motion, of history cannot simply be set aside to collect dust or gather old biases about itself, to be forgotten or minimized, when put in this light. And how right would it be, to even call what’s being witnessed ‘history?’ Not even that vaguely mournful air pervading any portrayal of time past can dampen the immediacy of these myriad faces, magnified—individualized—as they are onscreen; nor can their voices ever fail to signify what, for them, must always be the here-and-now…


A shared language is almost inessential. Even certain specifics—place-names, surnames, titles and designations—might for the viewer remain indefinite for the entirety of Voices Through Time’s eighty-or-so minutes and still, precious little would be lost.

It’s how I saw it, anyway. I don’t speak Italian but I found that Franco Piavoli’s documentary about the lives (or the flashes of lives) of various inhabitants of the village Castellaro, in the Lombardy region of Italy, doesn’t really require of its viewer to know the language. What is spoken is subordinate to what’s being shown, and although the title of the film is Voices Through Time (Voci nel tempo, in the original) it might also be appropriately titled Volti nel tempo, or Faces Through Time, as Piavoli’s priorities seem focused just as well (if not more so) on the changing physical features of the human body as it matures as he is on the changing of its voice.

This is a gorgeous film, and one whose attractions reach the viewer rather straightforwardly; and certainly not from the same aesthetic distance as come in Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac. Its pleasures, comparatively, are simple, as they find joy and beauty in the places most people everywhere find them: in beautiful faces and locales and music.

A shot from Franco Piavoli's "Voices Through Time" of a young woman walking under a sunlit arch.

There really isn’t any plot or narrative, no individual portrait or particular social issue being plumbed here. Or, rather, what’s depicted in Voices Through Time is perhaps the most conventional narrative, and the most pressing social issue, of all: the growth of a person, from infanthood to senescence, as seen via the many villagers of Castellaro.

We begin with childhood. There is an infant climbing stone steps, and struggling to do so. Then we shift to the later juvenile years, with children beginning to form a sense of who they are in contrast to others on the play-field, and to view the world with the looks of open amazement that old age often stunts. The middle section deals with adolescence and adulthood, and seems preoccupied with eros, and its compulsions, above all else. Piavoli’s camera is transfixed by the desirous expression on his subjects and enjoys a dancing crowd, and couples intwined, particularly.

We end in the final years of life, with various elderly people filmed carrying on in the twilight or total night, and a man caught—on what seems to be his deathbed—in silence and perhaps senility. Piavoli then shows another old man struggling up the same steps as the infant from earlier in the film, thus bringing his meditation(s) full circle. There is a kind of coda, where several townspeople (of all ages) play about in a wintry landscape, sliding over frozen water, as life simply continues to go on for those who enjoy the privilege of living it.

A shot from Franco Piavoli's "Voices Through Time" of a young man lying in the grass at night.

If it seems a too-brief synopsis, that’s simply because what’s being portrayed (and pondered over) is rather simple, and, like its pleasures, makes no difficult demands on its viewers’ powers of analysis. That, however, is not to say the film is without certain subtleties: perhaps Voices Through Time’s greatest strength is its visual composition, and how it arrests a moment and allows the meaning of the image to simply resonate, without fanfare, before moving on to the next.

And many of the film’s visuals contain something of the same static depths that are suggested in the best photographs (of this genre, at least). They strive for a kind of universality: Who has not found themselves lost in contemplation, or cast their eyes toward a crowd and judged, or yearned for glistening flesh? Yes, desire is clearly something Piavoli focuses on; perhaps the argument here is that life is about desire, and usually for things inaccessible to us, or, at the very least, difficult to obtain. The boys stare and, on their motorbikes, circle the girls in the plaza, and the girls laugh and return their looks; the girl less beautiful than the others pines for her moment, and when it comes, does not seem all that it’s made out to be; the babe and the old man toil up the stone steps, and they are never shown reaching the top.

Watching this film for the first time, I was reminded of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, as it’s been on my mind as of late having struggled to complete a review of it, but also because that film’s middle section—involving the young protagonist’s upbringing in 1950s Texas—uses similar technique in capturing (in flashes/vignettes) specific moments of a person’s life that might carry the same universal resonance. Malick, like Piavoli, focuses on the human face as it contemplates or squints or mulls over thought, and we might imagine an alternate version of Voices Through Time where the villagers’ inner monologue is whispered in voice-over as they stare at something beyond the frame, a la Malick.

A shot from Franco Piavoli's "Voices Through Time" of a boy looking at a star from a nighttime window.The Tree of Life, despite its flaws, is clearly the better film, but one thing I do think that Voices Through Time has over the later work is its simplicity, and its sole reliance on the goings-on of real people in a real place in order for deeper profundities to work within the viewer. The poetic camera-work is there, as it is in Malick (albeit more stationary), but note how much Piavoli accomplishes despite not book-ending his narrative with the origins of the cosmos and speculations regarding an afterlife where all souls are ultimately reconciled.

That’s Malick’s prerogative, to be sure, as an artist, so you can’t fully condemn the man for pursuing a particular vision. But still, I was struck by these many faces and by how much I could immediately recognize and empathize with. They lived before me, and were filmed the year of my birth, in a place far removed from anywhere I’d ever eventually go; yet, how estranged can they really be, when shown to be as present in their own lives as anyone else? It wasn’t that long ago, after all. Their lives are simple and their concerns are our concerns, up until they cease to be. Outside of that, what else really is there to speculate about?

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More from Ezekiel Yu: Craft & Cutting: On Robert Bresson’s “Lancelot du Lac” (1974), Some Stuff to Say: Reviewing Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” (1973)Vanishing Act: Review of Christopher Nolan’s “Following” (1998)

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