Article by Valentina Testa
Translation by Giorgia Legrottaglie
In Milan’s Labanof, the Laboratory of Forensic Anthropology and Odontology at the University of Milan, Professor Cristina Cattaneo takes care of bodies without identities, which she calls “pure strangers.” These same bodies give their name to Valentina Cicogna and Mattia Colombo’s documentary: Sconosciuti puri (“Pure strangers”), which is dedicated to the struggles of forensic anthropologist’s work.
She either spends her days teaching in university lecture halls and analyzing the funeral of St. Ambrose in the Milanese church, or at work in the antiseptic spaces of the laboratory and, finally, on the Sicilian coast talking about the migrants washed ashore by indifferent waves. As we follow her analyses and read her emails, we become increasingly aware that death is actually something which belongs to the living: to those who try to numb the pain for a departed loved one, and to those who deal with humanitarian emergencies such as the one unfolding on the Mediterranean coast. Professor Cattaneo works with those that restore the dignity of life to people who no longer have life.
Her story is intertwined with singular and peculiar events, such as that of the sister of a young Albanian woman who disappeared in 1996 and was only recently identified by the team, and now struggles with the constant search for funds for the laboratory. But it also touches on collective issues and phenomena, such as the migrant crisis that directly involves European countries. The right to a name is inalienable, and that is why it is essential to recognize and rebuild it, also and above all to give dignity to the dead, as Cristina Cattaneo repeats. She even goes so far as to say it to the European Parliament, where she manages to get a judicial hearing where she asks member countries to cooperate and support her in her battle.
Eight years of filming led the filmmakers to reshape the documented story according to contingent developments. At first, Valentina Cicogna and Mattia Colombo said: «this film was meant to be a reflection on identity, but then it became the story of a political battle because identifying someone is a right not only for the person who is no longer there, but especially for those who remain». In March 2024, a collection of signatures campaign will also be launched with the release of the film to solicit European attention to the work Cristina does for her – but not only – pure strangers.