by James Hansen
Selected as the Opening Night Film for MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight 2010 (running now through March 3), David Christensen’s The Mirror focuses on an interesting story, presents it pleasantly, yet misses a larger opportunity to really illuminate various aspects of a strange town that it puts on display. In the mountains of Northwest Italy, Christensen finds a small village called Viganella, which from November to February, due to the location of the surrounding peaks, gets no direct sunlight in town. The eccentric mayor, along with a local architect, decides to build a giant mirror and install it in a specific place on the mountains so it reflects sunlight into the village square.
The story of the mirror is cute enough, but The Mirror finds its life in the town’s residents. The mayor, Pierfranco Midali, is fascinating to watch as he plans and promotes the arrival of mirror. Basking in this small bit of glory which his town has never seen before (media come from all over – even Al Jazeera, assuring him that they aren’t terrorists), Pierfranco gives The Mirror an energetic presence. A local priest compares the mirror to God’s gift of light. Other locals don’t see what the big deal is, but are happy enough to help. Christensen’s camera captures the beauty of Viganella’s landscape and goes from home to home finding an equally magnificent group of people.
Unfortunately, when The Mirror is over, it seems as if the townspeople ultimately get a short shrift. Nearly all the interviews focus on the mirror and what they think it means for the town. Though this central concept is interesting enough, The Mirror grows tiresome after 85 minutes of local musicians and mirror-talk. (Also not helping at all is an embarrassing, tacked-on reflexive conclusion.) As most of the town’s residents see the mirror as a ploy or a social experiment, The Mirror bites into the visitor ideology that it simultaneously tries to break from. Seen as a small episode in a larger project, Viganella’s mirror could be a quirky trait from this unexplored part of the world. The Mirror, however, never wanders far enough from its basic premise to fully explore other elements of Viganella. In missing this opportunity, it feels like a long news piece on a weird little town. At times, you can feel The Mirror trying to break from this mode of address, but it always comes back to the mirror rather than to Viganella.
The Mirror was apparently shot over the course of a year, so it’s even more strange that there wouldn’t be footage investigating larger elements of the town, the intimate cross-cultural founders, or the actual lives of the people. With a great opportunity like this, Christensen’s simplicity backfires. It’s a fun vacation/adventure story, sure, but why not look a little deeper next time?