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December 1, 2006

Mondovino Takes the Scenic Route

Director Nossiter revisits his wine-world chronicle in 10-hour series premiering at MoMA

Over a barrel: One of the many wine enclaves featured in director Jonathan Nossiter's Mondovino: The Series (Photo: J. Nossiter)

When director Jonathan Nossiter set out to make his documentary Mondovino -- an exploration into the world of wine and winemakers -- he wasn't only shooting one cohesive film; he was simultaneously fashioning a series that he hoped would be like chapters in a novel. Although the 135-minute feature that was shown at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival was a movie that could stand on its own, Nossiter wanted to mold his 500-plus hours of footage into something broader.

And that's what he did: His ten-part series will have its world theatrical premiere at the Museum of Modern Art starting Dec. 2, presented as five two-hour screenings over more than a week.

"They were constructed simultaneously so this is not a question of expansion," Nossiter told The Reeler in a phone interview from Brazil. "This is not a question of taking outtakes. I literally built the editing side-by-side going back and forth between cutting the series and cutting the feature version. With the series version I definitely had in mind this sort of very long, discursive 19th-century novel, which offers a different kind of pleasure for a reader. And in this case I was hoping to bring that similar sort of pleasure to a viewer."

Through its chapters and episodes, Mondovino: The Series looks at the process of winemaking (both past and present) and examines whom the major and minor players are, criss-crossing the globe to hear their stories. Nossiter explores how globalization has impacted an industry that was once an artisan trade practiced by winegrowers who passed the craft down through generations and is now dominated by large companies with huge tracts of land, like the Robert Mondavi Winery in California.

Throughout the film, Nossiter avoids taking sides as he meets with wine growers in their homes, farms, distilleries and restaurants. One chapter, "The Appian Way," is a revealing glimpse at influential critic Robert Parker whose reviews are often responsible for the fate of wine worldwide. "Pax Panoramix" portrays the fight to keep winemaking local, including a sequence shot in Brooklyn. We see the bigger wineries in Napa Valley with their guided tours; we hear the stories from French oenophiles who speak proudly and candidly about their love for the soil and the grape. In the end, what emerges is more than a portrait of wine; it is a portrayal of tradition, big business versus independents and metaphors for humanity in general.

As such, said MoMA film and media curator Jytte Jensen, Mondovino's scope deserves this expansive treatment. "When I saw this feature film in Cannes, I liked it but I wanted to know more and I felt that it was truncated," says "And to me it was a very good film but I felt there was something missing. So when Jonathan kept saying that he was going to make a much longer film because that was how he had initially intended it, then I was very eager to see it."

Director Jonathan Nossiter (left) with Sardinian vigneron Battista Columbu in Mondovino: The Series (Photo: Cinetic)

Although Nossiter acknowledges his heart is with the underdog, he never set out to be confrontational nor does he intentionally set out to make anyone look foolish. Nevertheless, whereas the smaller wine growers are pleased with the film, some of the owners of the larger corporations are upset with him. "You try to get people to reveal themselves and you do it with as much empathy as you can muster," he said. "And so I didn't go after anyone. People revealed themselves over the course of several years."

And Mondovino doesn't shy away from what they revealed. "The wine industry is a completely Mafioso, ingrained, protectionist, multi-billion dollar industry," Nossiter said. "The vast majority of journalists are complicit with the industry that they are supposed to cover. I think the independent wine makers are grateful that someone finally exposed the frauds and hypocrisy of the world which politically have meaning and which culturally have meaning to a lot of people across the globe and historically. It goes without saying that the largest powers in the wine world consider me the devil incarnate."

Nossiter likened his globetrotting production to being inside a James Bond adventure -- armed with only the smallest of crews and his digital camera, adopting a maverick style of filmmaking that he felt fit the topic. He credits the new technology as a tool that enabled him to shoot his 500 hours of material, a task that never would have been possible to manage on celluloid and a small budget. Unfortunately, this same technology often makes both the series and the feature repetitive and technically sloppy; the project would have benefited from more thoughtful camerawork and tighter, smoother editing throughout.

On the other hand, the format of the 10-part series gives viewers an opportunity to immerse themselves in another world -- which is the way Jensen saw it when she decided to program it. "I do think that a lot of material becomes deeper -- not just longer but deeper -- when it's given more time," she said. "And I'm a big fan of lingering on moments."

Ultimately, Nossiter knows that his film is more than just about wine; anyone can see the hypocrisies and struggles chronicled in Mondovino in other industries as well. "The point about wine is that it's a cultural expression, a social expression," he said. "It's so emblematic. The problems facing the world of wine are by and large notions of freedom of expression, of diversity, of surviving corporate homogenization. It's the same problem facing filmmakers. There's no such thing anymore as independent filmmakers. We're all depending on a system that either swallows us or rejects us. I think we reached a state certainly in America but [also] in the global film industry with very narrow choices."



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