June 10th, 1981 is a date in recent Italian history that is marked with an emotional wound. The story happens in Vermicino, near Rome. A six-year-old called Alfredo Rampi, affectionately nicknamed Alfredino, accidentally falls into an artesian well, a narrow cavity that goes dozens and dozens of meters into the ground. The operations to rescue him start immediately. Police, firemen, engineers, and speleologists. All gather to define a strategy to save the child under the desperate eyes of his parents, Franca and Ferdinando.
But things don’t go as expected. Many difficulties start haunting the rescue. The structure of the soil, and the shape of the well, which are too narrow for an adult to pass through. But most of all, time. In fact, Alfredino suffers from heart disease that shortens the amount of hours he can be left unattended. Unfortunately, what everyone expects to be a story of salvation and life, three days later results in death.
In 2021, forty years later, Alfredino – An Italian Story tries to reproduce the events of those painful days.
The renounce to sensationalism
If that day a coup d’état had occured, people would have said: “That’s fine, but let me see what happens in Vermicino”.Emilio Fede, ex-director of an Italian national newscast
Pornography of pain is an expression that was born in the following years to describe the way the media reported events. Uninterrupted live coverage, morbid delivery of anguishing moments, constant comments on the emotional state of the main protagonists. All the eyes of Italy tuned in to their televisions. Someone defined it as “a terrifying reality show”.
The show’s writers, Barbara Petronio and Francesco Balletta, together with the director Marco Pontecorvo, had a difficult challenge. They had to tell the story of a tragedy without staging a melodrama. Choosing to shoot it as fiction, instead of a documentary, was a risk. But the Italian audience was already over-fed with pictures and videos from those horrible days. So they chose to examine those materials to deliver a realistic narration. As a result, Alfredino turns out to be thorough but not indulgent, avoiding macabre details or exasperating feelings. It renounces sensationalism to build tension on a more basic principle. The spectator knows what’s going to happen and watches the progression of events with a stifling sense of the inevitable. Nothing is stressed or emphasized: each scene is an equally-worth tile in a bigger mosaic.
The choices of direction are crucial in building the atmosphere. In Alfredino, there are two main protagonists: the well and the crowd. The spectator never sees Alfredino once he’s fallen in the well. What he sees is the numerous attempts of descent. Sweaty and red bodies slid into the culvert, at first gushing with hope, then emerging defeated. The camera captures the narrowness of the well, the asperity of the walls, picturing the superficial world as a disk of light, where some faces overlook in worry.
However, the outside is not a wide and comforting place. The site of the incident is packed with people, and not only authorized personnel. Journalists, politicians, meddling people: everyone wants to be a witness of the rescue. Plus, the crowd is not silent: they whisper, talk, and scream, standing where they shouldn’t and judging both choices and behaviors. The crowd becomes another enemy, hindering every attempt of assistance. The main characters are never alone on screen: they always have to make their way through the multitude. An equally claustrophobic scenario to the artesian well.
Alfredino doesn’t end with the death of Alfredo Rampi, nor with the pain of his mother Franca Bizzarri (Anna Foglietta). It closes with a social and political message. After the strong focus on Franca’s resilience, the story shifts towards the creation of the Civil Protection – a social corpus that was born right after this tragedy. Italian institutions realized that there wasn’t enough coordination among the aid forces when it came to sudden dangerous situations. Civil Protection, with the tireless work of Alfredo’s mum, soon became an organizational structure that, to date, deals with every kind of emergency.