Italia Almirante-Manzini plays the painter Sofonisba in Cabiria (Giovanni Pastrone, 1914) Image courtesy of Museo Nazionale del Cinema di Torino

Recine, the International Festival of Archival Cinema, is the stuff a cinephile’s dreams are made of. Its slate bulges with beloved classics, premiering restorations, and a host of new films competing for prizes, including one for best research. Each day from 10am to 5pm, films were scheduled back-to-back in the vaulted-roof “cellars” of the National Archives, a restored neoclassical jewel in Rio de Janeiro, with nighttime screenings held under balmy spring skies in the courtyard patio. A full moon on the calendar and decorative royal palms scheduled to sway seemingly on cue. The program, released only shortly before the opening night, promised a journey through almost the entire Italian neorealist oeuvre, tinted treasures from Italy’s silent era, one of which, Giovanni Pastrone’s landmark of silent-era cinema Cabiria (1914), I have waited years to see on film, and the technically dazzling and warmly observant widescreen documentaries of the late Vittorrio De Seta, shot on a now-extinct colour film stock. Panels covering the Italian influence on domestic cinema offer the chance to learn about pioneers rarely mentioned outside Brazil, Pascoal Segreto, Brazil’s first filmmaker, and Cinema Novo’s indefatigably inventive cinematographer Dib Lutfi among them. A magazine published by Recine containing histories of these riches was also promised as an erudite souvenir to pore over once the festival ended. What’s not to like?

Begun ten years ago as a way to highlight the importance of preserving audiovisual materials and its ephemera, Recine annually features a national competition of works that incorporate photos, documents, and/or archival footage as visual components. The plethora of non-competitive sections are curated around an annual theme, ranging from revolutions and the press in cinema to soccer and Brazilian music. For its most recent event, Recine chose to highlight the Italian influence on Brazilian cinema and Italy’s cinematic riches as part of the “Year of Italy in Brazil”, a nationwide cultural initiative in 2011 celebrating the country’s Italian immigrant population and its contributions to the cultural landscape. Guy Bourlée, a guest of Recine, brought treasures from the Cinemateca di Bologna and its famed 25 year-old festival, Cinema Ritrovato. The local also took up considerable program space with productions by Vera Cruz, a mid-century attempt at creating a “film factory” in São Paulo, founded by Italian-born theatre impresario Franco Zampari and headed by the prodigal Alberto Cavalcanti who had most recently been working in England. Caiçara (Adolfo Celi, 1950) and Lima Barreto’s O Cangaceiro (1953), both of which competed at Cannes, headlined a program of 13 films by the short-lived studio. An extensive roster of Italian classics by everyone from Antonioni to Wertmüller, Bertolucci to Visconti, and Leone to Rossellini, as well as films from Brazil’s Cinema Nova movement, inspired by Italian neorealism, added to the total of 182 individual works crammed into five days. With such high hopes established at the outset, disappointment might have inevitable.

On opening night, the skies serendipitously cleared of clouds after threatening rain all afternoon, fostering further hope. The evening’s proceedings, however, only foreshadowed the mini-disasters to come. After the endless introductions and obligatory thank yous of every festival experience, the screenings finally began with three short Italian silents from the teens and a tribute to Gilberto Rossi, pioneering photographer, film producer and Italian immigrant, including his company’s 1929 30-minute production, Fragmentos da vida, directed by José Medina. The 35mm projector mute behind us, the feature presentation was projected on DVD and accompanied by Rossi’s great-granddaughter, Anna Claudia Agazzi, a classical pianist with the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra. As the funny, touching story of a down-and-out man trying to get arrested so he could have a place to sleep and a hot meal was reaching its resolution, the image onscreen skipped to the beginning of the actualities next in the night’s lineup. Her score interrupted, the befuddled pianist took the microphone, “films” still “rolling”, and offered this sheepish explanation for the technical problem: “It’s an old film.”

Fragmentos da vida (José Medina, 1929) Credit: Cinemateca Brasileira

Fragmentos da vida (José Medina, 1929) Credit: Cinemateca Brasileira

Of course, the problem was not with the “old film” (“filme antigo” in Portuguese sounds nicer), but with the new technology. We never got to see the end of Fragmentos da vida and the rest of the Rossi actualities were ignored in the ensuing confusion. Luckily for me, I had seen the film twice before – on film – once many years ago at the Latino Film Festival in Sao Francisco, California, and this past summer at Cinemateca Brasileira’s excellent annual silent film festival, the Jornada Brasileira de Cinema Silencioso, which was also dedicated to Italian cinema. Fragmentos screened twice on 35mm, once with Agazzi’s live musical accompaniment and once without. (Later Recine’s festival curator, Clovis Molinari, told me that the DVD version was chosen at the request of Agazzi who was afraid the film print might break during the performance.) When it came time on opening night to screen the Italian short silents on loan from Turino’s National Cinema Museum, gorgeous tinted 35mm prints, with sumptuous costuming and whimsical plots, including 1910’s Un matrimonio interplanetario, which featured a flock of humans in penguin suits, the audience had dwindled to fifteen souls. At least by then, the festival photographers had stopped popping flash bulbs in the audience’s eyes.

The following day, technical problems continued with the new technologies. The DVD stations outfitted with blackout curtains in the Archives’ ground floor were running three hours behind. Pasolini’s “cellar” was still not up and running when I passed by again around 1:30pm. I was assured that Accatone! (1961), Mamma Roma, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964) and Teorema (1968) would all run in sequence that day. On the plus side, the “cellar” (caves in Portuguese) showing the competition films was overflowing. Claustrophobic with rows of plastic chairs set up with no allowance for legroom, these caves, even the glitch-free ones, I decided were better left unexplored.

Plenty was going on in the Archive’s main auditorium to keep me occupied, not the least of which was the Vittorio De Seta’s series, Il mondo perduto (1954-59). While more spectator-friendly than the cellars, the lecture hall was not set up for film projection. (Molinari said the festival had only been able to rent one film projector). De Seta’s camera puts you in the bow of the fishing boat plunging through heavy chop like a Wolfgang Peterson movie, without the use of CGI, and while the Ferrania-made film stock’s rich blues and textured browns, which still have no equals in the crayon box, still impress, they did not have the same vibrancy on the digital format. But the big disappointment was the low attendance. Besides the odd one or two stragglers – who sometimes neglected to close the blackout curtain, allowing a huge swath of light to wash out the image – I was alone in the theatre. I might sound like the old ladies mocked at the beginning of Annie Hall, complaining about bad food and in such small portions, but I had expected the auditorium to fill with students and filmmakers for this rare opportunity, even on DVD. Perhaps a more privileged time slot than the 10am screening accorded to De Seta’s films might have bumped up attendance. The very next screening, Porto das Caixas (Paulo César Saraceni, 1962), a recently restored “rural noir” from Brazil, which had premiered on film at the Festival do Rio one month earlier, began with no break as the De Seta program was scheduled based on incorrect running times. Alone again in the audience, I missed the end of the film because two festival organisers thought the screening had ended and entered the room, the sun streaming in with them, and started discussing the setup of the day’s panel.

Yet another highly anticipated screening was on the horizon and I was determined that Recine fulfill some of its promise. Pastrone’s 1914 super-spectacle Cabiria, the first of the many Maciste films to come, was shown on film en plein air during an evening show. Sadly, it was projected at 24 frames per second instead of 16, the sped-up movements reinforcing erroneous stereotypes of silent-era cinema. The pianist, Carlos Eduardo Pereira, who plays for silents at Rio’s Cinemateca-MAM, gamely kept up throughout. Molinari apologised beforehand for not having the appropriate setup and for the break in the middle while the projectionist changed reels. I would have preferred a delay between each of the six reels, if it magically meant we could see the film at the proper speed.

O Grande Momento (Roberto Santos, 1958)

O Grande Momento (Roberto Santos, 1958)

Der leone have sept cabeças (Glauber Rocha, 1971)

Der leone have sept cabeças (Glauber Rocha, 1971)

Two remarkable screenings managed to salvage the week-long event for me, both shown on film at night in the patio amphitheatre. Roberto Santos’ black-and-white Italian neorealist-inspired O grande momento is the tender story of a young, working class couple preparing for their low-budget wedding. Made in 1958, it is directly descended from Ladri de biciclette (Vittoria De Sica, 1948), also featuring an income-generating bicycle and progenitor to homegrown filmmaker Walter Salles’s quietly powerful 1998 Central Station. The second, Der leone have sept cabeças (1971), an allegory of colonialism shot in Brazzaville, is Glauber Rocha’s first film made in exile during Brazil’s military dictatorship. Featuring Jean-Pierre Léaud as a missionary and Rada Rassimov as Marlene, one of several feral Europeans, the film’s restoration appeared impeccable, the real star its gorgeous Eastmancolor photography.

One scene is particularly striking, an extended hand-held tracking shot (which I learn in a later panel was pioneered by Dib Lutfi, cameraperson on Rocha’s 1967 Terra em transe). Cutting through soldiers dressed in jungle camouflage, assault rifles poised to fire, marching endlessly in a circle, the camera came to rest on the faces of the young African boys on the sidelines. The scene could have been shot last week (except for the film stock). Its continuing relevance more than 40 years on has a chilling effect.

Paloma Rocha, daughter of Glauber, spoke at Recine’s panel “Preservation and Restoration of Film” about Der leone and the challenges of tending to the Rocha legacy. After the filmmaker’s death in 1981, his mother Dona Lúcia set up Tempo Glauber in Rocha’s adopted home of Rio de Janeiro in order to hold and care for his body of work and its ephemera. 2011 marks the 30th anniversary of Rocha’s death and also a crucial moment for the Rocha family-run archive, which lost support from the country’s Ministry of Culture. Since openings its doors in 1989, Tempo Glauber has overseen (and harnessed the funding for) the restoration of seven of Rocha’s films, including his first feature Barravento (1961), about fishermen in his home state of Bahia, and three landmarks of world cinema: Deus e o diabo na terra do sol (Black God, White Devil, 1964), Terra em transe (1967), and O dragão da maldade contra o santo guerreiro (Antonio das Mortes, 1969). Tempo Glauber also houses a laboratory to preserve and restore the estimated 100,000 documents generated by Rocha, a prolific note-taker, critic, and illustrator who was the cultural conscious of the Cinema Novo film movement. The lab now stands inactive. The museum’s collections were all moved to the Cinemateca Brasileiro in São Paulo, and Tempo Glauber, whose importance to Rocha’s legacy is equaled only by its dedication to access to that legacy, is in a struggle for its life. (tempoglauber.com.br).

Recine’s panels seem to me to have been the heart of the event. Besides the evening screenings on the patio, these were the times I saw the curators and organisers in the same room with audiences (and the only time the blackout curtains in the main auditorium were carefully monitored to keep out the light). These panels are indisputably valuable for visiting scholars, programmers and curious audiences alike and offer the opportunity not only to share insider information but also to make connections otherwise difficult to achieve. Attending the preservation panel where I learned of the current plight of Tempo Glauber was the daughter of film producer and distributor Mario Civelli, whose digitally restored 1968 documentary O gigante screened in one of Recine’s cellars. In the question-and-answer section, she made a contact in the director of the Cinemateca Brasileira who promised to help clear up a potentially crippling misunderstanding about the process of funding the preservation of her father’s extensive movie collection. Il Cinema Ritrovata’s Guy Bourlée began the panel with an overview of the Cinemateca di Bologna and its festival, illustrating a possible model for Recine’s future. In fact, Recine curator Molinari told me later that he learned a great deal from time spent with Bourlée, who faithfully attended the entire festival and even helped to keep the blackout curtains closed during some screenings.

Technical glitches (and full-on disasters), delayed screenings, longwinded benefactors, and a myriad of other annoyances are nothing new at film festivals. And, they are gladly endured by moviegoers because, in the end, film festivals are about film. Films that we otherwise would not get a chance to see, at least in their original formats and on a big screen, almost always with some context, perhaps a few experts around to give us some back story or insight not available at the multiplex. Let’s face it: it’s hard out there for the moviegoer. Whether you are in your friend’s living room enduring the latest Almodóvar in “zoom” mode or His Girl Friday stretched out to fill the anamorphic dimensions or at the multiplex wondering why the digital projection of Tom Ford’s A Single Man can’t make maximum use of a screen that is proportional to the movie’s aspect ratio, seeing a film as its creator intended is a rarity these days.

Film festivals and museum series are our last hope. Out of ten films I saw at the recent Festival do Rio, only two went off without a hitch. Both, incidentally were projected on film: Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light (the director was in attendance) and Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le quattro volte (by the way, a clear descendent of De Seta). Other screenings were marred by crappy digital projections and other technological issues. I sat through Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse with the bottom part of the screen completely swathed in light from the subtitle projector. The much anticipated screening of Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere had no sound for long stretches and incited an insurrection among frustrated viewers, me among them. At the Cinema Ritrovata tribute that took place at the Instituto Moreira Salles a couple years ago, the two projectionists could be heard yelling their heads off in the booth while the 35mm image onscreen melted before our eyes. I’ve heard of many other such incidents and not only in Brazil.

Analogue technologies are no longer properly supported by their manufacturers and it’s only going to get worse. Museums and film festivals are going to have to become expert caretakers of these machines as well as of the film material in order to continue showing these artworks. But an art museum could not promise an exhibit of the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci and get away with showing only photographs of them, no matter how stunning the reproduction. There would be riots, or at least a riot of sneers. Running a film festival isn’t easy. Running one within a bureaucratic institution such as the Arquivo Nacional must have its own particular challenges, with its complex web of regulations and protocols, and higher-ups to gratify that go as high as the president’s cabinet. But if you are going to do it, the work must come first, even if it means limiting your ambitions. Parties and panels and paparazzo and publications and publicity might be necessary components, but they must remain secondary. The film is the thing.

Molinari told me after the festival when I came to see him about film stills to illustrate this article (and to pick up the promised magazine) that Recine had needed to “take up a lot of physical space” for political reasons. Thus the impossible and wide-ranging roster of screenings, almost everything on digital formats and shown on television monitors. Whatever the strategy, I hope, on the one hand, that it helps Recine’s prospects for the future. On the other hand, if it becomes an annual stratagem just to ensure the event’s survival, moviegoers might be better off without Recine. At least at home, the DVDs can be viewed from a comfortable couch.

Recine – International Festival of Archival Cinema
7-11 November 2011
Website: http://www.recine.com.br/2011/home.php