Still from Al Largo, Anna Marziano

At just over an hour in length, “Al Largo” is a meditation on pain and illness as an essential part of the human experience.

In a pre-recorded Q&A following the premiere, filmmaker Anna Marziano (“Beyond the One”) described it as a film about “the violence of life,” but the footage itself is far from violent. Lulling the audience into a thoughtful calm, Marziano invites us to reflect on a series of relationships, that of the person to the Earth, the person to the self and the person to society.

The title, which translates to ‘offshore’ in Italian, reflects the sea, one of the film’s more prominent motifs. Marziano said that the title “gives you the sense of a risk you need to take for living.” This risk is the chance of suffering, the likelihood of a surprise diagnosis or a painful accident. However, without taking this risk, we cannot enjoy life. Marziano added, “there is nuance to the expression in Italian … it’s both risky but also … something beautiful you dare to do.”

This “something” is living itself. By merely daring to live, we expose ourselves to the risk of physical pain. By daring to care for one another, we expose ourselves to the risk of empathy. Care is a central theme in the film; passages on caring for the sick are woven in with passages on the experience of being sick. “Al Largo” explores the symbiotic relationships of doctor and patient and mother and child as it seeks to understand the way pain mediates human relationships.

As with many Ann Arbor Film Festival features, the documentary formula is rejected in favor of an artful film essay. Marziano leads this exploration not through interviews and newsy footage but through spoken literature and relevant imagery. For example, the film begins with the words and amateur paintings of Francesco Nash as he reads passages displayed on-screen against the backdrop of his artwork. Nash introduces the theme of the sea, first saying that as a young man he came “to look at the sea not just as a source of fish but as an event in itself, brimming with life.” Nash’s voiceover also begins the discussion of pain: “Pain can be something that happens and that you can treat in the same way you experience the color of an orange, the taste of a medlar … it can be a part of all the things that combine to construct your life.”

This fundamental role of pain in living is reiterated throughout the film, most eloquently by philosopher Claire Marin’s writings (also read aloud, and paired with footage of hands busy with book and craft-making). Marin describes the pain of a chronic illness as “a war on the inside.” Her poetic expression of the burden of illness and its potential to dehumanize the afflicted is beyond moving — the film functions as a guided meditation for the sick and those who care for them.

Part of what makes “Al Largo” so meditative is Marziano’s focus on the bodily hyperawareness prompted by chronic illness. Marin says that this hyperawareness “anticipates the disappearance to come, but, above all, supports the present.” Accordingly, even pain-free viewers are brought into their own bodies and made aware of these supportive functions. 

In the film’s second act, the intrapersonal meditation on pain and healing is expanded to a societal and interpersonal level. Italian health care workers discuss the failures of their nation’s public health care system. Researchers share microscopic images of foraminifera, microscopic marine organisms that can reveal the human environmental impact on the oceans. The personal burden of pain quickly becomes political in our societies, and Marziano weaves the two together deftly.

“Al Largo” does not focus on a single instance of pain or investigate a particular failing system. Instead, the film is a philosophical treatise in itself, bolstered by the self-reflection and philosophy provided by its contributors. Marziano’s incorporation of text on-screen engages a sixth sense of critical analysis, ensuring the viewer remains engaged with this moving picture essay on life and suffering.

When Marziano characterized the film as being about “the violence of life,” she echoes Marin in contemplation of life’s inevitable finale by presenting illness as a memento mori. Through the tacit and threatening vitality of the sea, Marziano suggests that being adrift in pain can ironically be a pathway to grounded self-enlightenment.

For those wishing to better understand the experience of chronic illness, “Al Largo” offers a meditative journey through the social and personal dimensions of suffering and healing. The audience will undoubtedly be left with an enhanced awareness of their own bodies and how their bodies relate to the world at large.

Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at