'A balsam for our eyes': two reports from Il Cinema Ritrovato 2017
Cannes isn’t the only festival on the block! Each summer Bologna in Italy gives itself over to the love of cinema with its celebrated archive film festival, Il Cinema Ritrovato.
Never wanting our readers to be uninformed, we’ve brought you not one but two reports from the thirty-first edition of this cinephile’s dream event. First, Borderlines Film Festival‘s Jo Comino shares the details of her incredibly varied five days in the city; next we hear from our own Marketing & Communications Manager Duncan Carson, who attended to share some knowledge at the Europa Cinemas Audience Development Lab and take in little-seen gems and classics.
Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna is more than a festival, it’s an adventure. You set out armed with a programme and a 400-page catalogue for cross-reference and explore… cinema. Every one of the 26 films that I saw over five days clashed with two or three others that clamoured to be seen. Strategy? Try to go for the ones that would simply be impossible to see anywhere else and throw in a handful of unmissable ‘rediscoveries’.
Recovered and Restored: Scarface
Arriving in 37°C heat, it was a relief to plunge into the velvety black of one of those films that I think I’ve seen, but never have: Howard Hawks’s 1932 version of Scarface, newly restored by Universal. Full of night shots in shiny, wet streets, rattling car chases and punctuated by submachine gunfire, it sets the template for gangster films and Paul Muni’s performance in the role of Tony Camonte has a physicality, a ruthless impudence, that sweeps away everything before it.
This strand of Iranian popular cinema, directed by Armenian-Iranian Samuel Khachikian prior to the 1979 revolution, would never have happened without the festival. L’Immagine Ritrovata lab in Bologna offered to scan a couple of the movies. That gesture, as recounted by curator Ehsan Khoshbakht, prompted the National Film Archive of Iran to reciprocate and release the films. Khachikian was a prolific cross-genre director who portrays a cosmopolitan, unequal society, with feckless playboys and affluent doctors on one side, print-workers and the dispossessed on the other.
Storm Over the City (Toofan Dar Shahr-e Ma, 1958) throws everything at the camera; it’s more spoof Gothic horror mixed with melodrama than film noir. In the opening scene, a rabid escaped madman (tameable only by a penniless, beautiful widow) goes on a killing rampage and everything comes to a head in a spectacular fire in a crumbling mansion. Khachikian’s The Crossroad of Events (Chahar Rah-e Havades, 1955) contains the first onscreen kiss in Iranian cinema; though unfortunately, those 60 frames have been cut from the existing print.
Revolution and Adventure: Mexican Cinema in the Golden Age
A season of Mexican films from the country’s post-revolutionary period (1930s to the early ’60s) provided a singular glimpse into an unfamiliar cinema tradition. El Compadre Mendoza (Fernado de Fuentes, 1933) recounts the story of an opportunistic landowner who switches sides in the Revolution to save his own skin while Two Monks (Dos Monjes, Juan Bustillo Oro, 1934), a strikingly Expressionist film set in the early 19th century, tells the tale of two friends who become deadly rivals over their love for the same woman. Aventurera (Alberto Gout, 1950) belongs to a highly specialised genre, the rumbera film, and features Cuban dance star Ninón Sevilla as the lead Elena in an outrageous plot that finds room for some equally extravagant Carmen Miranda-esque numbers. By contrast, Soledad’s Shawl (El Rebozo de Soledad, Roberto Galvadón, 1952) is an absorbing, social realist, rural drama, narrated by a hard-working and honest doctor.
Forgotten directors: William K. Howard/Helmut Käutner
Il Cinema Ritrovato unearths work by directors who have been unjustly neglected. I saw two films by US director William K. Howard: the pithy 55-minute feature The Trial of Vivienne Ware (1932) with cracklingly witty dialogue and Transatlantic (1931), a complicated shipboard melodrama. What stood out in both films was the exposition of space, and the dazzlingly choreographed movement of crowds of people flowing in different directions.
Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) was shown in a restored version on the big public screen in Bologna’s main square. The very next day I caught a thematically similar, lesser-known German film, Unter den Brücken (1946), directed by Helmut Käutner. Willi and Hendrik are bargees who sail their boat between Berlin and Rotterdam until a chance meeting with a troubled young woman disrupts the equilibrium of their life. Shot just before Berlin was bombed, it contains no reference to politics or war, and has a haunting, lyrical quality in both its urban and rural landscapes.
Universal Pictures: The Laemmle Junior Years (part two)
The focus on Universal films from the early ’30s produced by Carl Laemmle Junior was carried over from last year. Though watching some of these movies was like wading through treacle, they deliver riveting insights into US social history of the period.
The curious Destination Unknown (Tay Garnett, 1933) comes across as a parable for the Great Depression. A ship is becalmed with a cargo of bootleg booze while the only barrel of fresh water is kept under lock and key by chief smuggler Pat O’Brien. Hate, inequality, desperation, mistrust and betrayal weigh over the scenario without a glimmer of hope. Until, that is, poor old Ralph Bellamy, so often confined to the role of stooge fiancé (The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday) pops out of nowhere as a beatific, doe-eyed stowaway. The giveaway line is when he mentions his previous experience as a carpenter. The barrels of wine in the hold turn out to be miraculously full of water and the plot is killed stone dead as the characters reconcile and are saved against a ‘fingers of God’ backdrop.
The bruised, cynical persona of actress Mary Nolan struck me in two of the Universal films from 1930: Outside the Law (Tod Browning) in which she plays the hard-bitten moll of ‘Fingers’ O’Dell whom we first glimpse as a legless automaton as part of the advertising display in a bank window and Young Desire (Lewis B. Collins) where, as a carnival dancer on the run from her pimp, she’s taken under the wing of a wealthy young boy. A sinuous and beautiful blonde, it turns out that Nolan’s career was tragically cut short by repeated physical abuse and drug addiction. Uncannily, it shows.
Women do their thing: La Verité/Aventurera
Film after film, from different times and different places, pinpointed the vulnerability of women, pounced on without warning by men in a daze of sexual bestiality, or appraised as domestic commodity (washing clothes, doing the dishes, looking after the children). Two films turned this stereotype around for me. In Clouzot’s La Verité (1960) Brigitte Bardot is Dominique, a young woman on trial for the murder of her lover Gilbert. Key prosecution evidence as to her delinquency rests on the fact that she goes to the cinema three times a week. Bardot’s sexuality is not explained or repressed, she simply IS, and takes the consequences. Similarly, Elena in the Mexican film Aventurera suffers unspeakable iniquities only to find that her future, ultra-respectable mother-in-law is none other than the brothel-keeper who drugged her into prostitution. She carries out a fitting revenge.
Two Faces of Robert Mitchum
With a spotlight on Robert Mitchum there was plenty of opportunity to explore masculinity as well. I enjoyed the shimmering film noir Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947) and the western River of No Return (Otto Preminger, 1954) but Vincente Minelli’s Home from the Hill (1960) – how did I ever miss this? – was my revelation. Father-son relationships come to a conflicted and violent head and the nature of Wade Hunnicutt’s (the Mitchum character) machismo is wonderfully underscored by the number of animals, living and dead, in his den.
An immaculate restoration of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) brought back the full paranoia of being shut up in a small room with the raw, febrile baby creature (surely an influence on Alien?). Written on the Wind, one of three Douglas Sirk Technicolor 35mm prints shown at this year’s festival, looked simply stunning. Farinelli describes the sensation of watching these colour prints as ‘a balsam for our eyes… the dye transfer copies don’t just have transparent, bright and amazing colours, they also have brilliant whites and deep blacks that give the images a richness and an engraved precision that makes us think of three-dimensionality’.
My festival highlight was seeing D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop (1969), unavailable for years, restored and remixed and introduced by the man himself, now a sprightly 92, on the city’s huge Piazza Maggiore outdoor screen to an audience of thousands. Pennebaker provided profound insights into his documentary; how shooting from behind was as important as capturing the face of the performer and how his camera team adapted their equipment so that it could take them right into the action on and off stage.
His attitude to musicians like Joplin and Hendrix was that they were extraordinary; ‘saints’ was how he described them. And the extended 17-minute Ravi Shankar improvisation at the end of the film doesn’t show the players till halfway through, capturing instead the transfixed attention of the audience. Hard at times to tell whether the applause was on screen or live, the intimacy of the 16mm footage in the context of a mass, shared experience was sheer, joyful magic.
“PS Four final warnings:
Over half the films we are showing will be projected on 35mm format.
- All the silent movies will have live musical accompaniment performed by extraordinary musicians putting their talent to work on for films of the past.
- The festival would not exist without film archives (public and private) and without the passionate and skilful work of the people who work there.
- Il Cinema Ritrovato is a true festival (from the Latin word festivus, enjoyable, festive). In other words it is a place where people can meet without a red carpet or VIP areas: just women and men who love film and culture.”
These are the last words of Il Cinema Ritrovato’s Festival Director Gian Luca Farinelli’s introduction to this year’s edition. Now in its thirty first year, Il Cinema Ritrovato is the world’s largest festival dedicated to archive and restored film. But it is also much more than that, as the introduction offers a flavour of, acting as kindling for cinematic passions and a place where otherwise niche film interests can be shared at Cinemascope proportions. There’s a distinct relief in visiting a festival without the hurly burly of dreams in progress, where no one is scanning your name badge to see if you are worthy of ten minutes at a drinks reception. We are here to discover and to champion, and we have the whole of film history to choose from.
Having the whole of cinema to roam across makes for some adventurous and ambitious programming. Rather than relying on what’s available and fresh from the last twelve (or less) months of production, the Cineteca calls upon historians, curators, directors and writers to draw new cross-cultural and thematic links. That means thematic, geographic and historical. A quick glance at the programme promises riches from the noir films of Iran (never before seen in the west), ‘Revolution and Adventure: Mexican Cinema in the Golden Age’ and Alexander Payne and Neil McGlone’s ‘A Sunday in Bologna’, featuring films from across history with Sunday in the title, programmed across a whole Sunday at the festival.
One of the real pleasures of the event is the level of context offered by the archivists and curators on site. Year round, they are beavering away on burnishing the lost treasures of film, and it’s great to be able to gather and share what they find interesting for a modern audience. The corollary of this means that you’re forearmed before every screening. As in the best museums, what could be leaden and remote shifts into clear focus. The past feels both closer and much more alien with this added context. It’s a chance to understand not just what’s on screen, but also the world as it was when the film was made.
A prime example is when I sit down to watch the earliest surviving film by Pola Negri. To confess my ignorance, I am only dimly aware of her place in silent film history. But I quickly learn from the team at Filmoteka Narodowa that Bestia is only with us because of a later American copy, cashing in on her international success six years after its initial release, and that The Polish Dancer (as it was known in the US) was originally produced as a sideshow attraction at a lavish ice rink in Warsaw. It’s these kind of rich details that fire the imagination and remind us what a vagabond, exciting, dodgy time the start of film was. The film itself is a morality tale, with Negri punished in the most brutal way for her youthful excess, running riot (as an intertitle tells us, in an epidemic of delinquency) at ‘rough picnic parties into the early hours.’ Parents, lock up your hampers.
There’s an earnest sweetness to some of the presentations: I sit down to a presentation by Gaumont of their latest work on early animator Émile Cohl’s short films. The ten films we watch are simply the titles they have worked on this year at the archive, a lively show-and-tell of work in progress. Having watched Cohl’s work only on low quality YouTube clips, it’s a delight to see flowers dance, looking as crisp and fresh as though they had just been plucked, rather than having withered in 1909. Similarly, we’re treated to the first twenty five minutes of Abel Gance’s epic The Wheel. It’s as if the delight in having reclaimed this work from the ashes is too much to withhold until it’s complete: I simply MUST show you now!
Between the films, I’m fortunate to contribute to the Europa Cinemas’ Audience Development lab (see their Storify to catch up on what was discussed) and get the opportunity to speak to participants from across Europe. Cinema history is taken very seriously here. We are treated to a private tour of the Cinema Modernissimo as it is being renovated. Opened in 1915, this four hundred seat cinema is directly underneath Piazza Maggiore.
Truly though, the best part of Il Cinema Ritrovato is the chance to fill in big gaps in your film knowledge (or meet up with old favourites) under the best possible conditions. At the festival’s heart are its screenings in Piazza Maggiore, where up to five thousand festival guests and locals (those who haven’t escaped to the coast in the summer heat) gather to watch classics. Not far from the medieval tower, you’re treated to a gigantic screen and surprisingly good sound (given it’s a reverberating square).
Here are two titles I would recommend for any repertory programme:
Films slip away for all kinds of reasons, and it’s not always the passage of decades. Med Hondo’s West Indies was released in 1979, and it’s a delight to have the director to introduce the screening. Hondo, charmingly overcome with emotion, is delighted that his film is being watched again, exclaiming that he made it for people to see. And it couldn’t be a more pertinent moment for the filmmaker to be the focus of Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, part of a wider initiative to restore fifty African titles. His Soleil O played Cannes Classics, but it’s a stunning Harvard Film Archive print we watch here.
West Indies is an anti-colonial musical, telling the story of the Caribbean islands both when they were first colonised by European nations, and the later abuses of luring diaspora to Paris to live in an unfit and racist society. The whole of the film takes place on a gigantic slave ship, with scenery changing to depict different historical moments. In other hands it could feel like a play staged for the screen, but Hondo’s choreography and vivid colour make it a genuinely cinematic experience.
This film deserves to be better known: it’s a genuinely engaging watch, but also never shies away from caustic anti-colonial thought. As a result, it’s all the more stirring and enduring in the memory. It doesn’t hurt if the revolution looks like it might be… fun? Here’s hoping this new print can tour the UK in due course.
On more familiar ground was La Verité from ‘France’s Hitchcock’ Henri-Georges Clouzot. Brigitte Bardot stars in this courtroom procedural, with a tale of young love gone sour told in flashback. Clouzot’s typically crisp direction pairs well with the cynicism of the courtroom, played off against the idealism of the bohemian world that Bardot finds herself in. It’s a slightly stiff portrayal of the Left Bank, very much the generation above looking at the one below with mild bemusement and distance. But the film is held up well by Bardot’s performance, given as she entered a new phase of her career with Godard’s Le Mepris only a few years away. It’s similar to Diana Dors’s performance in the (incredible) Yield to the Night: someone using their beauty and star status to tell a social realist story of the lives of women, and stepping away from the trite characterisations offered by the industry at large. The brutal ending is typical of French films of the period, but hopefully this won’t keep La Verité standing besides Clouzot’s more famous works like Le Corbeau and Les Diaboliques.