Video Review: LArte di dar Contraria

Journal of Western Martial Art
LArte di dar Contraria
Directed by Roberto Totola
Running time 22 minutes

Review By Tony Wolf

LArte di dar ContrariaLArte di dar Contraria is a semi-dramatised exploration of the Italian martial arts as interpreted by Nova Scrimia, a society dedicated to the revival of this tradition. Inspired by their nations rich martial heritage, Nova Scrimia has taken an eclectic approach to their field of study. Certain techniques are presented as adaptations rather than as textbook examples of historical practice. This documentary-style video is intended as nothing less than an entertaining "sampler" of a range of Italian martial arts across the ages, and at twenty-two minutes it could not possibly be more than that. The titles, dialogue and narration of this edition are in Italian, with English subtitles.

The documentary opens with an (un-translated) quote from Matteo Maria Boiardo. Then an intense young narrator leads the viewer along a torch-lit path through the Italian countryside, accompanied by four Nova Scrimia Maestri (teachers), eventually passing through a wooden door set into an ancient-looking stone wall. We find ourselves in a shadowy room containing nine chairs set in a large circle. Three men and two women in costumes ranging from Medieval to early twentieth-century fashions emerge and take their seats, followed by the four Maestri. The atmosphere is intriguing and dramatic, suggesting a "time out of time" in which Masters of Defence from different eras have gathered to discuss the finer points of the arts.

We then segue out into the field beyond the villa walls, where two pairs of fencers in modern protective clothing demonstrate the use of the baton and baton-and-buckler combination. The slippery terrain possibly hampers their spirited bouting, yet this sequence effectively portrays the use of batons as substitute single-handed swords. Back inside, one of the costumed figures dramatically introduces the dagger into what is apparently an ongoing discussion about the merits of different weapons. Two of the fencers then illustrate his point (pun intended) by demonstrating a defence against a dagger thrust. The defender is armed only with a jacket, which is put to good use in smothering his opponents attack.

Two costumed women pause during their stroll through a picturesque glade to introduce the next sequence, in which a duet of un-armoured Maestri move with ambidextrous elegance in a display of half-speed sword and dagger fencing. Remaining outdoors for the time being, a debate between two gentlemen standing atop an ancient wall or bridge develops into a bout between two sabreurs. This is most effectively followed by a demonstration of late nineteenth-century walking-stick fencing, performed at the edge of a spectacular ornamental pond. The historical connection between classical sabre and stick fighting is clearly shown.

The final demonstration occurs indoors within the circle of chairs, as the four Maestri display their skill at Mane Liberi. These unarmed combat techniques are strongly reminiscent of Fiores Arte dell Abbracciare and Marozzos prese. Two combatants perform a flow-drill in the background, while others in the foreground follow several techniques through to their conclusions. This is perhaps the most technically accomplished demonstration and is over all too soon, as the fighters are called away from their practice by the five costumed figures, who have been preparing a feast. In true Italian style, the story ends with the entire group sharing food, wine and camaraderie.

I must confess that this review is hampered by my inability to speak Italian, and so it is difficult for me to comment on the educational value of some of the un-translated dialogue between the different costumed characters. I have been informed that much of this dialogue is adapted, or taken verbatim, from various historical texts. However, all of the narration is subtitled in English and the translation is of a high standard.

The overall production value is, if not literally broadcast quality, certainly equal to that of a good corporate training video. The camera is used effectively. Costumes, lighting, editing and especially locations are all above average for this genre. The five people in historical garb are evidently experienced actors and their confident performances add a great deal to the ambience. There are a trifling few oddities with the sound production towards the end, notably a rousing cheer that seems to have overpowered the microphones and a disconcerting moment when the narrator, speaking directly to camera, is narrated over by an off-screen voice.

In sum, Nova Scrimia and their production associates have succeeded in crafting an entertaining documentary that will appeal to historical fencers, martial artists and aficionados of Italian culture and history. LArte di dar Contraria is also a fine example of how Western martial artists can promote their clubs and systems to a wider audience.

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Journal of Western Martial Art