Gianfranco Rosi is the third and final Italian filmmaker in competition and he was certainly worth the wait. After his impressive documentaries Below Sea Level and El sicario – Room 164 (both of them prize-winners at Venice in 2008 and 2010 respectively), Rosi returns to the Lido with his depiction of Rome’s GRA, a 64km-long ring road.

Sacro GRA follows the stories of the people living and working on and alongside the road. We meet a Piemonte nobleman and his daughter (Paolo and Amelia), a tree doctor (Francesco), an eel fisherman (Cesare), a prince (Filippo), an actor (Gaetano) and a paramedic (Roberto), though we also meet the nobleman’s neighbours. Installed in mini-apartments after some calamity, they are fascinated by their new surroundings – the abandoned villas, the dearth of playing children, the people scared of leaving their homes. Paolo is the knowledgeable pub bore, an eccentric and charming man who never stops filling Amelia in on fascinating facts. She remains immobile throughout as her dad potters about, ceaselessly chatting.

Francesco measures the noise activity of his trees: he is on the look out for his arch-enemy the palm tree weevil, whose orgies of eating and mating he vividly describes (“the repulsive feast”). He considers the palm tree to be like the human soul and his protection of his wards is obsessive. He is not the only person living beside the GRA to have such a strong connection with nature: Cesare spends his day on the Tiber. In the evenings he and his helpers repair the nets for the following day. As Irene sits silently listening to Cesare, he says: “Ah, Irene, you’re always sewing. Like Penelope”.

Herein lies the beauty of this documentary. Rosi has found amongst the hobos and prostitutes, noblemen and workers, an immense poetry and humanity. This is primarily embodied in Roberto, the paramedic who rescues tramps from canals and speed freaks from mangled wrecks. He treats his passengers with great passion and humour, but it is when he visits his mother – in the most moving scene – that we witness the depth of his warmth and gentleness.

Humour comes in the form of Gaetano, an actor who works mainly on magazine photo stories. There are hilarious scenes of Gaetano dressed as a butler with the photographer giving instructions. Gaetano tells his co-star that as a young man he always refused to have sex, “but if I’d been offered the lead, I might have bent over to pick up a coin, as we say in Rome.” The prince, chewing an unlit cigar whether pushing weights in his gym or lying in his tub, lives in a castle that is a Nero’s palace designed by Versace, all marble, velvet and gold, gold, gold.

However, Rosi never laughs at his protagonists, which include two lap dancers who perform in the shabbiest, saddest little club you could find on a ring road. A great shot is the close-up of their high-heeled feet as they dance for the handful of patrons while the barmen work around them. The wizened prostitutes are also sympathetically filmed.

Rosi depicts the lives of the people on the GRA and also the nature that survives tenaciously alongside it – the grazing sheep, the river, the palm trees. A scene of a snow storm on this busy stretch is a thing of beauty. Once again, Rosi has come to Venice and delivered the documentary goods. An outstanding and tender film.