The marble quarries of the Apuan Alps float 3,200 feet over northern Tuscany, blindingly white landscapes set to the soundtrack of deafening excavation equipment. “It is a monstrously beautiful place,” says filmmaker Yuri Ancarani who spent a year waking up at 4 a.m. and lugging a 35mm camera around the stark landscape for his 15-minute short film about the mine’s foreman.
This region of northern Tuscany is the only place in the world where Carrara marble is mined, and 300 quarries produce the same white and gray veined material that Michelangelo chose for his David. Marble was discovered by the Romans 2,000 years ago and has been prized ever since. Today, up to a million tons of Carrara marble are mined a year.
Using no dialogue, the film, Il Capo (The Chief), tells the story of Franco Barattini, the bronzed foreman of the quarry, who uses a series of gestures to guide his staff operating the diggers that crack and extract precious marble. Whereas an aircraft marshal might use a pair of glowing batons to do the job, the captain makes motions as subtle as rubbing his fingers together to edge a pair of giant bulldozers toward a marble cliff.
“Usually people are fascinated by the magnificence of the marble quarries, as they are scenic and very beautiful natural places,” Ancarani says. “In this case, in addition to the spectacular nature of the quarry, when I looked down, I immediately found a strong interest in the people who worked there.”
The chief wasn’t originally the film’s original focus. “Only some time after the beginning of the shooting, I realized that the most important moment was when the chief follows and directs the excavators that drop the blocks of marble,” Ancarani says. “But to get to this focus, I had to shoot for one year.” The poetic subtlety of Barattini’s gestures were lost in the cacophony of a construction site.
Il Capo was actually completed in 2010. After that, it toured international film festivals for three years and racked up awards. The film has been rediscovered by the public, as its trailer was recently uploaded to Vimeo and YouTube. But there’s no way to see the full 15-minute short online or at home. It’s currently playing at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles until January 18.