VENICE A portrait of life along Rome's ring road is emerging as the quirkiest of a flurry of documentaries making waves at two of the world's top film festivals.
Italian director Gianfranco Rosi's "Sacro GRA" - a pun on the ring road's name which evokes the Italian for Holy Grail - delves into the lives of a dozen characters, including a weevil-fighting tree scientist, but their names, personalities and occupations only gradually become clear.
At the Venice Film Festival, it is one of an unprecedented two documentaries in competition for the Golden Lion award for best picture, due to be awarded on Saturday. The other is director Errol Morris's "The Unknown Known", a portrayal of former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Meanwhile "The Fifth Estate," an unlikely thriller that chronicles the emergence of anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks and its enigmatic founder Julian Assange, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday.
Often seen as the poor relation of feature films, documentaries are enjoying a resurgence.
"Documentaries are entertaining and they can be just as stimulating" as conventional feature films, said Charles McDonald, a London-based publicist promoting Morris's movie, and had overcome "the stigma that they were rather dry".
Also being screened at both festivals - considered testing grounds for the Oscars - are "The Armstrong Lie", about disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, and "Walesa, Man of Hope" a biopic of the Polish Solidarity union leader.
REVENGE ON WEEVILS
"Sacro GRA" starts out slowly and perhaps unpromisingly, showing cars circling the ring road with a flock of sheep moving slowly in the background.
But it picks up pace as Rosi's lens, like a CCTV camera, peers into living quarters and workplaces, including an eel-fishing boat on the Tiber River.
The ring road marks a dividing line between the Eternal City and its less affluent periphery, but Rosi's cameras sometimes defy conventional wisdom.
Two of the people whose family life is spread out for all to see are bushy-grey-bearded Paolo and his daughter Amelia, living in a tiny flat in a tower block under the airport flight path.
She is always studying at her computer in the tiny single room that serves as their living and sleeping quarters. Her father muses on improbable topics, such as a book by Lawrence Durrell in which he says a boa constrictor falls from a ceiling fan onto a party of dinner guests. He thinks he once owned the book, but perhaps it has been lost in their "wanderings".
The main character in the film, though, is the scientist Francesco, obsessed with finding a defense against infestations of red palm weevils which threaten to destroy the groves of palm trees on the outskirts of Rome.
Francesco, who bores into trees and uses sound detection gear to see if the weevils are present, says that the palm tree has "the shape of the human soul".
On a computer at his woodstove-heated home, he listens to the sounds of weevils munching through a palm tree, and then, for the benefit of Rosi's camera, plays a hideous screeching noise he hopes will cause pandemonium among the weevils.
"This is the prelude to revenge, my dears," he says.
Rosi said he had spent years preparing and researching for the film, and only began filming when Francesco called him and told him "I've been invaded by aliens" - meaning the weevils.
"I had to make him talk about these palms and these sounds that really caused him great anguish... and his character came out, it was there in a nutshell," Rosi said at a news conference.
"Every character has this very close link to the past and I think this is common to them all," Rosi said.
"In a place which is without an identity we have these characters who are very strongly grounded, with very strong identities and roots, and I think this is what all the characters have in common."
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)