Inside Covid-19 in Cremona with Sasha Joelle Achilli

Photo of Sasha Joelle Achilli by Arianna Pagani/Frontline.

The cathedral bell tower of the Po Valley hill town of Cremona, Italy, is visible from miles away. Constructed in the early 13th century and rising more than 370' from the piazza, it is one of the tallest brickwork bell towers in the world, a symbol of Cremona’s political and cultural power through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The great opera composer Claudio Monteverdi was one of the town’s native sons, and in the 16th and 17th centuries, Cremona was home to several generations of the world’s greatest luthiers, string-instrument craftsmen whose names drip with the kudos of eminent classical musicians; they are the workshops of Amati, Guarneri, Rugeri and Stradavari. Though still regarded as a vibrant tourist site today, Cremona is no longer a must-see destination for the avid culture vulture.

Recently, however, the distance separating Cremona from its Lombardian neighbor town of Bergamo —less than 50 miles — has given both historic cities a new but unsought prominence as Italian epicenters of the Covid-19 virus. It was Lombardy and especially these two towns which alerted the rest of the world that the virus would not be confined to the locked-down city of Wuhan in China’s Hubei province. It had escaped to the West, to Europe and, inevitably (despite pathetic denials from the White House), to the United States.

The PBS Frontline documentary Inside Italy’s Covid War, which premiered May 19, thrusts viewers into the maelstrom of the central Cremona hospital as its staff battles the virus with few resources and PPE supplies — a story soon to be repeated in hospitals across the United States. Frontline filmmaker Sasha Joelle Achilli, a Northern Italy native who now lives in London, had arrived in Cremona two months earlier, in mid-March, to find that the crisis had been in runaway mode for several weeks. Achilli describes it in this Q&A:

After a harrowing journey to Cremona, Achilli meets the hospital’s chief resident doctor, Francesca Mangiatordi, who is already keeping a video diary. Her intimate reflections serve as prologue to Achilli’s film. 

Inside Italy’s Covid War opens with a series of nighttime drone and panning shots of the hospital exterior with Mangiatordi’s voiceover, a voice of both exhaustion and desperation:

It’s 8 o’clock on March 17. I just finished my 12-hour shift, and what affected me most tonight … a lady asked me tonight what was going to happen to her? Why was she here on a stretcher in the hallway with 15 others and only one toilet? There is no dignity anymore; we lost the sense of humanity. I don’t know what the aim is of working in this way, and in the end, the role of the doctor loses its meaning.

Francesca Mangiatordi, M.D., in a scene from the documentary.
Francesca Mangiatordi, M.D., in a scene from the documentary.

There is then a direct cut to Mangiatordi looking into the lens of her cellphone camera as she says, “I can barely cry.” From this moment, Achilli’s film, scene by scene, only intensifies. It’s worth noting that Achilli is an esteemed filmmaker who, with producer Dan Edge, spent five months in Africa in 2014 making the Frontline documentary Outbreak, about the Ebola virus. 

Working with minimal crew, Achilli serves as producer, director and cinematographer, which allows her to move quickly and with total control over how and what to shoot. In Cremona, her gender may also have helped her gain intimate acceptance by the largely female hospital staff. Watching the film, it is clear Achilli is not just documenting the dramatic daily events but is deeply embedded; every scene yields an ever deeper sense of engaged compassion, and the cumulative effect is miles removed from the tone of a more objective or newsy documentary.  

Achilli’s filming at Cremona’s Ospedale Maggiore lasted three weeks. In that time, she documents the life-and-death struggles of a number of patients, including an 18-year-old man, Matti, who is tracked from near death to recovery. Early on, we also discover 30-year-old Cristel, mother of three, as she sits in a corner corridor waiting for a room; we experience her anxious moments during an MRI of her lungs.

Many times the staff is swamped with new patients. One nurse, Cristina Pilati, recounts the failure of the hospital’s critical oxygen-supply system:

“I was desperate, I really thought: Now we have to decide … who do we save? We already know that not everyone is going to survive, so let’s save the oxygen for the ones we know that have more chances to be saved. Let’s make a sort of pre-death triage. It was the most terrible thing ever.”

Nurse Cristina Pilati in a scene from "Inside Italy's Covid War."
Nurse Cristina Pilati in a scene from "Inside Italy's Covid War."

Mangiatordi’s staff struggles day by day, hoping for a turnaround in the number of patients being admitted. One doctor on staff, Laura Bocchi, becomes infected and is isolated in a room of her home, communicating with family via handwritten notes left on her door. We meet Mangiatordi’s family as they prepare dinner at the end of a day; we also follow them in their weeks-long lockdown. Her husband, Michele, has a chronic respiratory condition and can’t leave the apartment. In one scene, their 13-year-old son, Damiano, evokes the heroic image of Marvel’s Captain America as he talks of his mother locked in combat with the virus.

The film is filled with many such intimate and moving scenes. At a time when the creative and marketing lines between big screen and small screen are blurring, this less-than-one-hour film made for television achieves a dramatic, emotional intensity of which few fictional theatrical movies are capable. 

Bridging scenes in the hospital are Ozu-like montages of the town and its iconic campanile, juxtaposing the hospital’s 21st century ICU unit with images of this ancient town that survived medieval plagues.

Photo by Dwight Peck.
Photo by Dwight Peck.

Here is a 20-minute podcast interview with Achilli about the making of her film …

… and here is Inside Italy’s Covid War:

With America riven by protests sparked by the death of another black man, George Floyd, at the hands of rogue cops, an event that has many of us wondering “What next?" in this fractious time, it’s inspiring to see the tenacious power of love and survival in Achilli’s film. Hope rises in our hearts like the iconic Cremona cathedral tower reaching into the sky … and like the hope of young protesters here and, increasingly, around the world — a hope rising through the clouds of tear gas and pepper spray that preceded a photo op staged in the plaza of another iconic church, one just a short perp walk from the Oval Office. 


The March: James Blue


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