Left: Angela Ricci Lucchi and Yervant Gianikian, Prigionieri della guerra (Prisoners of War), 1995, still from a color film, 67 minutes. Right: Angela Ricci Lucchi and Yervant Gianikian, Terra Nullius (Land of No One), 2002, still from a color film.

ALTHOUGH THE FILMS of Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi are frequently labeled as “documentary,” their work indisputably transcends—even undermines—the righteous propriety of that rubric. As studied, often-lyric montages of extant documentary footage, their films constitute, instead, a meta-practice: at once instances of witnessing and attendant meditations on the pleasures, terrors, and failures of witnessing. In the first major US retrospective dedicated to the Milan-based duo, MoMA presents the entire range of their oeuvre—from an early work on Cesare Lombroso’s macabre museum, to their landmark From the Pole to the Equator (1986), to more recent and previously unscreened films. Unifying that corpus is the pair’s peerless mixture of archival diligence and aesthetic nuance, with which they have unearthed, rephotographed, and subtly altered original footage since the 1970s. Gianikian and Ricci Lucchi manipulate their montages with periodic slow-motion and accelerated sequences, tinted hues, and inverted negatives, drawing out unlikely and often unsettling rapports between seemingly disparate events. Their varied outtakes and montages hew closely to a core of consistent themes: war, fascism, colonialism, spectacle, and the insidious interconnections among them.

More often than not, those interconnections take corporeal form. History in these works is not simply a question of grainy striations or the quaint patina of faded celluloid, but rather one of the body: as a revenant in flesh and blood. Bodies maimed and mangled by bombs (Oh! Uomo [Oh! Man, 2004]), corralled and choreographed for political and military ceremony (Archivi Italiani no. 1 [Italian Archives No. 1, 1991] and Su tutte le vette é pace [On the Heights All Is Peace, 1998]), scrutinized and fetishized by the camera’s prying eye (Images d'Orient, tourisme vandale [Images of the East, Barbaric Tourism, 2001]). Oh! Uomo’s close-up montage of anonymous, mutilated World War I veterans reveals faces so disfigured they struggle fruitlessly to contort into smiles. Here is the history of the twentieth century distilled, for an instant, into an image: humility and savagery, science and its Frankenstein monster, a smile without a chin.

Even when the body is absent from the frame, Gianikian and Ricci Lucchi evoke a world wrought (and ruined) by human design. In its evocations of World War II and the aftermath of Fascism, their recent work Ghiro ghiro tondo (2007) singles out stray abandoned toys and other inanimate objects as metonyms of a singularly human catastrophe. Many frames—as well as the ellipses between them—conjure up something of Siegfried Kracauer’s conception of the filmmaker as ragpicker, homing in on otherwise ignored or overlooked fragments of reality that illuminate larger historical developments. We might think of the camera in these sequences as an unwitting metaphor for the filmmakers’ larger practice: a sorting of the remains of (film) history into a new narrative, somewhere between a dogged attempt to make sense of the world and an acceptance of its cruel senselessness.

Angela Ricci Lucchi and Yervant Gianikian, A Retrospective,” screens at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, February 2–28. For more details, click here.

Ara H. Merjian