Cinema Ritrovato had never gone away in 2020 and 2021 but now there was no online alternative and most festival-goers were back at the usual venues to a visibly packed week. Although there was a ‘last minute’ queue, the booking system developed under Covid was kept. So, only online early bookers got to see some films.

I’ll start with the strand whose screenings were sold out within a couple of hours, five films by Misumi Kenji. As curators Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström remarked, westerners are most likely to have encountered Misumi’s later films in series such as ‘Zatōichi’ and ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ but the five selected here were from an earlier time period when the Japanese studio system could still cater to an informed audience, less in need of gore. Although almost never the scriptwriter for his films, a good claim can be made for him as auteur, based on his visual flair, seen on these films in a scope frame, his pacing, and his focussed direction of his actors.

Three of the films made an informal ‘sword trilogy’, not for any continuity of content but mainly for each starring the actor Ichikawa Raizō as a dedicated swordsman, facing hostile and isolating worlds. Ichikawa had come from the kabuki world and his gentle, troubled demeanour had already won him recognition in roles such as in Ichikawa Kon’s Enjō (Conflagration, 1958). Although each was shot in scope, they are strongly contrasted films. Kiru (Sword-cut, 1958) and Kenki (Sword Devil, 1965) are shot flamboyantly in colour and are set in the Early Modern, Edo era, to stories by Shibata Kenzaburō. Kiru’s script, by Shindō Kaneto, has a structure that might be Greek tragedy, and Misumi’s visual flair develops the psychological currents, memorably in the final scene, where the swordsman’s final, complete failure plays with no enemy visible.

The middle ‘sword’ film, however, is set in its present day, and shot in black-and-white, from a story by Mishima Yukio. Ken (The Sword, 1964) was scripted by Funahashi Kazuo and its entire subject is the hothouse of a university kendo club. ‘Club’ hardly conveys the single-mindedness demanded of all of its members. The framing continually piques our interest in the action, but there are tensions in Mishima’s story that finally come to a head at the summer camp.

Ichikawa Raizō

My preference, however, was for the two other Misumi films shown, still in richly expressive scope and colour, but both Edo-era dramas set away from the world of swords and samurai. Shirokoya Komako (What Price Love? 1960) reprises a famous incident of forbidden love that had been much depicted in kabuki and was here adapted for the screen by Kinugasa Teinosuke, under whose wing Misumi’s early career had developed. The young male lead is acted this time by Kobayashi Katsuhiko, earnest and embarrassed before the young mistress, but more confident elsewhere in conducting the family’s timber business. The final denouement is announced to stage clappers, that usher the unashamed retreat into the world of kabuki. Shirokoya Komako has three or four interesting female characters. However, Namidagawa (1967) might literally translate as ‘River of Tears’ but those tears are mostly of longing and the recognition of love, in this beautiful celebration of female agency that feels strikingly modern in its treatment and character development. The script was by Yoda Yoshikata, a frequent collaborator of Mizoguchi Kenji.

Surprisingly, these last two were only shown once each – a situation I had decried here before. One might have thought that, post-Covid, the intelligence afforded by the booking system might have taken the films beyond the smaller theatres. But the good news was that a Kadokawa representative, the rights-holders for Daiei films, was on hand with the ambition to show these films more widely.

As usual, there was a focus on films of 100 years ago. Not out of place with Chaplin’s last 2-reeler, Pay Day, was the Chinese silent, Laogong zhi aiqing (Labourer’s Love, 1922, Zhang Shichuan). It’s a 22-minute successful blend of gags and social comedy set amongst neighbouring street vendors at varied pegs on the social ladder.

Sessions from 1922 were frequently preceded by newsreels. Mussolini’s March on Rome was not forgotten. The clips gave no sense of what the fascists were against, but they did record faithfully who was in favour, namely the King, and I feel that the film record must have contributed to the undoing of the monarchy in 1945. An American newsreel recorded British Imperial forces beating up non-violent Indian demonstrators, but the contemporary intertitles saw it differently, describing the victims, in the preserved Dutch version, as ‘fanatiks‘.

One 1921 film that slipped in, but in the ‘Recovered and Restored’ section, was Crazy to Marry (James Cruze), presumably because 1922 was the year that its star, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, got cancelled on the say of William H. Hays. Five of seven reels were recovered from the Gosfilmofond archives and restored in co-operation with the Belgian archive, as representatives from both explained. Helpful captions for the well-researched missing reels made it a nice, light-hearted film.

That could not be more different from another late centenarian, La Terre (1921, André Antoine), setting the eponymous novel by Émile Zola, and very faithfully, albeit with the usual reduction in subsidiary characters. We have been treated to some fine restorations of Antoine films in recent years but this perhaps surpassed them. It’s a Lear story with two sons and a daughter, each with their own well fleshed-out family members. The characters are sharply drawn around their own preoccupations and the bleak Beauce landscape seems nearly always to have the parish church, standing alone, as visible in the background. We never see anyone enter or leave it and, when at the end, the patriarch, clearly dying, tries to enter it, it is locked. As in at least one other Zola novel, the story begins with the arrival of an outsider whose very presence will disrupt. The remorseless tragedy was particularly well accompanied by Stephen Horne, with Frank Bockius on percussion.

Thamp (Circus Tent)

Following last year’s showing of the visually memorable Kumatty (1979), we had another film by Govindan Aravindan, Thamp (Circus Tent, 1978), also set in Aravindan’s Kerala. Over the course of three days, we see a travelling troupe erect their big tent beside a river, attract the local villagers and perform. But we also get to see the difficulties they face in the village and the very tough life the troupe lead, especially the women. I never heard a woman speak to a man. There were a couple of remarks amongst themselves about food, one woman spoke to camera for ten seconds about her shitty life, and the rest was silence. Those silences however were visually eloquent in giving us the lives of the circus and the villagers.

For the poetical and dreamy Cheshmeh (The Spring, 1972, Arby Ovanessian), I needed better preparation to filter its repetition and fix its imagery. There was an Armenian context, forbidden love, intolerance, off-screen deaths and a celebration of gardens, perhaps including the first, biblical one. ‘Garden’ in Persian is ‘golestan’, and, as Ehsan Khoshbakht remarked, in Persian folklore, the fire that Abraham (Ebrahim) was thrown into became transformed into a garden. A film whose poetry did not prevent a direct reading was Yek Atash (A Fire, 1961, Ebrahim Golestan). It stood, primarily as a well-explained and spectacularly photographed documentary of a gas-well fire, and the Herculean story of its extinguishing. But this colour film took in the experience of nearby desert-dwellers and ended in the Zoroastrian imagery of fire.

The relevance of restoring Tau ban no hoi (Boat People, 1982, Ann Hui) surely lies nearer to the literal translation of the title, ‘Run towards the angry sea’, and her choice in making a back-story on ordinary people who are forced to become migrants, and how many never make it.

Ich bei Tag und Du bei Nacht (I By Day and You by Night)

German Musical Comedies 1930-1932 were themed this year. As Lukas Foerster pointed out, they were made by a combination of talents from across the spectrum, that would never work together again. The catalogue offers a roll-call of talent that was soon to disperse. I managed to fit in four, of which I greatly enjoyed two. Ich bei Tag und Du bei Nacht (I By Day and You by Night, 1932, Ludwig Berger) is a beautifully-paced romantic comedy of two young people struggling in low-paid jobs in the city. They definitely are not calling each other ‘du’, as the other person each share the bed with is an unmet obstruction in their lives, kept very separate by their landlady so that, of course, when they do meet and try to over-impress, they have no idea whom they are tangling with. All sorts of inventive comedies happen and entangle at both their workplaces. The few songs all ‘belong’ to the film-within-the-film. Other comedies featuring pairs near the bottom of the social heap were nearly as enjoyable but my other favourite was Das Lied Ist Aus (The Song Is Ended, 1930, Géza von Bolváry). In this, Willi Forst plays an ex-guards officer who becomes private secretary to an operetta star who is accustomed to ruling the roost and a host of prospective lovers. Being set in the musical world it has a greater dose of songs. Its ‘off’ ending proved more satisfying than the rom-com trajectory of its stable-mates.

German films were also represented by a strand on the actor Peter Lorre. Alexander Horwath, aided by Olaf Möller, Harunn Farocki, Felix Hoffman and others, made heroic attempts to lift Lorre above his “Hollywood stereotyping”. In my case, that would include the xenophobic and petty impressions by Peter Sellers and the post-war BBC. ‘A Stranger in a strange land’ was the subtitle of the strand.

A strand that managed to pick up many films that have gone into neglect was on Yugoslav cinema of the 1950s and ‘60s. For those few films that could be seen abroad at the time, few would have been able to recognise the national identities that lay behind them and which would have been obvious to those ‘Yugoslavs’ who watched them. Since the dissolution of the country, they have been left to be championed by a successor nation, if at all.

We had seven programmes of some 13 films, each from a different director. Some of the later of these might be included in the so-called ‘Black Wave’ of bunkered films that were hardly seen in cinemas. They were all new for me.

The first set was Tri Zgodbe (Three Stories, 1954), each part made by a different Slovenian director, setting novels by yet more Slovenian writers: Slovo Andreja Vitužnika (The Departure of Andrej Vitužnik, Jane Kavčič); Na valovih Mure (The Floating Mill, Igor Pretnar); Koplji pod brezo (Water in the Hill, France Kosmač). They had rural settings, portraying flawed characters against demanding landscapes, and were all set in some unspecified, pre-war, recallable past.

Ne Okreći se, Sine (Don’t Look Back, Son)

The Croatian director, Branco Bauer, was a name with a little recognition, even for me. We saw his Ne Okreći se, Sine (Don’t Look Back, Son, 1956). This was set specifically in Zagreb in war-time, when Croatia was the willing fascist ally of Germany. It starts on a train transport to a ‘concentration camp’, with carriages labelled ‘meat for slaughter’ but the guards know they’re live human cargo. One truck with only six men makes an escape from which maybe three survive, and at least one Orthodox man dies. We follow one, Neven, to a Zagreb flat, where he finds he is no longer the boyfriend, its resident having now acquired a replacement German one. Neven then searches for his son, now in a Catholic-run fascist-driven orphanage where he has been thoroughly indoctrinated. Freeing his son from the ‘orphanage’ with considerable subterfuge, he gets help from a Jewish family, where said son has much to unlearn, in order to be saved. Neven tries to persuade his hosts that “no one comes back from the camps”, but this doesn’t save the family from a round-up. Neven finally needs to make risky contact with the underground, in order to join the partisans, still with a son mouthing his anti-partisan tribal branding.

The inventiveness of the story (Bauer and Arsen Diklić), in the way it elicited an audience to join in making a mental journey from fascist sympathiser to those putting themselves in the hands of the partisans, seemed propaganda of a high order. It should have won sympathy, even with Croats who had ‘friends’ who had compromised or collaborated with the ‘Croatian Independent State’.

Zenica is the name of an industrial town in central Bosnia where the next film was set (Zenica, 1957, Jovan Živanović and Miloš Stefanović). An engineer has basic lodging in the house of a traditional Bosniak, and his urbane and polished wife comes down to live with him from Belgrade. From this set-up, and well-honed characterisations, a realistic melodrama was made. The filmmakers also came down from Belgrade and the catalogue gives some detail to their two later careers.

By vagaries of my timetabling, the next film, Deveti Krug (The Ninth Circle, 1960, France Štiglic) was one of the first I saw and had an exemplary introduction by Vjeran Pavlinić of the Croatian Cinematheque. Firstly, in contrast to many of his peers, he spared us an essay on the film’s restoration (which the catalogue adequately tells). Instead, he started with the statement that Croatia in WW2 had been “on the wrong side of history and participated in the holocaust”. Having spent many an hour in Croatian history museums where the 20th century is not mentioned, I found that refreshingly honest.

In the story, an architecture student agrees to make a sham marriage with a family friend, Ruth, who barely avoids a round-up of the rest of her family. The forced enclosure causes resentments that lead to their estrangement. Those tensions have just started to unwind when Ruth is herself rounded up. As Ehsan Khoshbakht says in the catalogue, “The film gradually shifts into semi-hallucinatory and expressionistic mode, especially in a breathtakingly shot sequence in Zagreb (the work of cinematographer Ivan Marinček, who shot more than ten films for Štiglic)”. Both were Slovenians here working for a Croatian company. ‘The Ninth Circle’ is the name of the concentration camp, the hell which Ivo has to enter in his attempt to free his Ruth.

Tri (Three)

Tri (Three, 1965, Aleksandar Petrović) is another war-time set drama that eschews the ‘partisan’ narrative trajectory. The first part shows panic by Serbs at the outset of the war, with a pointless and tragic civilian killing. The extended second section shows a pursuit of one Yugoslav soldier by a German unit. It is mainly shot in an extensive marshland that looked to me like Livanjsko Polje. Whether so or not, it adds the irony that most such places could not be used for filming now due to the mines of the wars of the ‘90s. The final section of the film leaves open as to whether the rough injustices of the beginning are to be repeated at its end.

Space does not allow me to say much about an early film by Dušan Makavejev, Čovek Nije Tica (Man Is not a Bird, 1965), nor of Zaseda (Ambush 1969, Živojin Pavlović). The latter is set around 1945 in Serbian lands insecurely liberated and depicted a revolutionary situation in raw chaos. We see young revolutionaries losing out to more cynical and ambitious operatives and I took it as a representation of a revolution betrayed.

Time and space also prevented my visiting strands of Sophia Loren, Peter Weiss, Victorin-Hippolyte Jasset or Hugo Fregonese. There was also a heady celebration of super-long films in an already over-crowded timetable. I had to forgo many treasures, such as 237 minutes of Ludwig (1972, Luchino Visconti) and 316 minutes of Kahdeksan Surmanluotia (Eight Deadly Shots, 1972, Mikko Niskanen) and settle for the wholly unlikely Noi Vivi – Addio Kira! (We the Living, 1942, Goffredo Alessandrini), at 173 minutes. A loving and lingering romance set in revolutionary Petrograd, where no one gets a job except through the Party and operatives in the NKVD call their bosses ‘capo’. It set, unknown to her, a novel of Ayn Rand and worked surprisingly well as a melodrama.

If the selection showed European bias, that European identity showed most emphatically in two restored films by Kira Muratova and shot in Kiev and Odessa. Korotkiye vstrechi (Brief Encounters, 1967) and Dolgie Provody (The Long Farewell, 1971) are both stories intricately turning around the lives of single career women who are not young. For the second film, we had an introduction by Peter Bagrov. Starting by saying he was not going to talk about the war in Ukraine (and, by so, cutting straight through two fatwas), he spoke warmly of Muratova’s European identity in the most cosmopolitan city of the Soviet Union, where Ukrainian, Russian, Jewish and Greek cultures met.

Northern Europe was not forgotten and, for me was represented by the very fine Avskedet (The Farewell, 1982, by Tuija-Maija Niskanen) from a script by two further women, Eija-Elina Bergholm and Vivica Bandler. Set in a substantial Swedish-speaking house at Helsinki, before and after WW2, it follows a daughter of the house in her long-developing estrangement from a dominating father, finding her way in a lesbian relationship. The only time the camera leaves the house is briefly off-stage in her theatrical endeavours. Her elders’ support of fascist politics is forgotten post-war with all the grace they can put on.

The enjoyment of the Festival was, as ever, greatly enhanced by the collegiate atmosphere, and would be impossible without many willing volunteers. One happily came up to me to remind me of an encounter last year where, apparently, I argued about a mask. My memories of last year were of being strictly compliant until I recalled an evening out on the Piazza. Alas, this year, although the strictures were posted, few of us were observing and yours truly paid the price on his return. So, if this account is jaded and fractured, I have to blame the virus, of which I am still testing positive as I conclude.

About The Author

Roger Macy contributes reviews to the Midnight Eye website as well as occasional Tokyo hearse-chasing for The Independent newspaper in London.

Related Posts