A passion for water

Written by  Aniello Zamboni
Comacchio in the documentaries of Fernando Cerchio (1942) and of Cesare Bornazzini (1991)
There are two sides to Comacchio. There's the 'picture postcard' town of churches, the Loggia del Grano, the Capuchin arcade, of imposing bridges and unusual noble palazzi. Then there's the 'lesser' town: the chaotic jumble of small houses, the modest bridges, the narrow canals and ditches which run into the public canals.
In the poor quarter of Comacchio the houses surround small courtyards, narrow alleyways, and open entrances which lead from the street into long internal passageways. Numerous 'street Madonnas' remain even today, images of the Virgin Mary located above the tiny entranceways, in the covered walkways and throughout the labyrinth of narrow streets. As much as a desire to display sacred images for the veneration of the faithful by day, the placing of these icons suggests the need to light the way through the streets at night by means of devotional candles. The nocturnal life of old Comacchio ? illegal fishing, the secret deals in late-night inns, the clandestine purchase of stolen fish, the coming and going of men and women who worked in the eel farms - necessitated clear signposts so people could move about easily through the darkness.
This Comacchio no longer exists: the revolutionary impact of the huge hydraulic drainage program of the last century has largely destroyed it. The houses of the poor, especially those with open doorways, were once furnished only with 'nets, harpoons, sails, a bed, a table, a chest full of rags, a stove.' But the wretched sight of such poverty and human suffering is no more.
Much that has been written on these social issues has been simplistic and problema tic, failing to go beyond the familiar clichés so beloved of hasty, ill-informed visitors who find grist to their mill in these hastily written guidebooks. At the other end of the spectrum, elegant and rhetorical depictions of the town, describing the beauties of the lagoon, the brilliance of the hydraulic engineering, the excellence of the fishing, can bestow upon Comacchio a poetic aura which fails to reflect reality.
The documentary by Fernando Cerchio, Comacchio, rejecting both approaches, is an early example of neo-realism. Above and beyond its presentation as a documentary and its surface examination of folklore, the film's true subject is every-day life.
As early as 1935 the Istituto Luce produced a short film on the same theme, consisting of sixteen scenes closely following the processes of eel fishing and processing. Margherita Sarfatti, one of the great intellectuals of the day, made a brief appearance in the film, observing the process of eel harpooning. This film was conceived as a publicity exercise and was widely distributed for several years, as a part of economic and political propaganda disseminated by the Fascist regime in its efforts to promote and encourage Italian industry and employment.
Cerchio's Comacchio was made within this climate of propaganda and publicity films. At the end of 1940 the Istituto Luce informed the Azienda Valli, the local body responsible for the management and direction of the Comacchio fishing and eel industries, that they would assume the costs of filming, providing that the Azienda supported the project. In the event nothing came of this proposal until the following year.
Comacchio was presented at the Venice Film Festival in 1942. Cerchio's masterpiece opens with the shimmering of dawn light on the lagoon, with the reflections of houses in the canals, and the gradual awakening of the town: men preparing to go fishing, women on their way to church, the day to day activity of people on the streets and bridges and on boats in the town's canals.
Cerchio shows us the poor of the town, dressed in wretched clothes and wearing clogs, some in black tabards. Their faces are skeletal and sunburned, the women's faces framed by black handkerchiefs. You can count on one hand the number of men wearing hats: instead they wear caps, the head-covering of the poor. Religion also plays an important part in the life of this Comacchio: the sound of church bells announces the beginning of each day of Cerchio's cinematic journey. In the homes of local people, and in the sala dei fuochi (or cookhouse) of the eel processing factory are images of the sanctuary of Santa Maria in Aula Regia, the 'Madonna of the People' and patron saint of Comacchio and the surrounding area. But Cerchio's Comacchio no longer exists, destroyed by the post-war drainage projects carried out in the delta. The barns on the lagoon where once local people were isolated from September to March each year, lost in the vastness of the lake, are now easily reachable. As Cesare Bornazzini's film Comacchio 1991 shows, they form a part of the huge 'museum of the Comacchio valleys' and are most attractive to visitors. Visiting these barns today it is almost impossible to imagine the tiring and miserable life of those men who, for hundreds of years, spent long days, even months, away from human company, imprisoned by water and the elements.
Comacchio today represents a fascinating meeting between past and present, as we can see in the documentaries of Bornazzini and Cerchio. Though water is no longer as central a part of the town as once it was - in part through the irresponsible drainage of some canals - it has once again taken centre stage in our hearts. This enthusiasm can be seen in the rapid development of the new clam-cultivating industry, in the allocation of remaining areas of the lagoon to fishing co-operatives, and in the excitement which has greeted the restoration of the sala dei fuochi, enduring symbol of our thousand year old fishing industry.


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