It’s an old postcard view of Bologna, the colonnaded street unchanged since this image was made over a hundred years ago, women in long skirts and parasols, the men all in dark suits and heavy moustaches, horse-drawn vehicles on the road. Then, in front of our eyes the horse-drawn carriages morph into modern cars, the dark suits and long skirts become the clothes of today. But the colonnades stay constant. Then another image, again recognisably Bologna. Crowds are near-hysterical over being so close to the black-shirted Mussolini and his heavy black car. Until those crowds, and the pompous Duce also vanish, leaving behind unchanged buildings but new lives moving through those streets.
These moments and more were from an installation in the exhibition Bologna fotografata, Tre secoli de sguardi (Photographed Bologna, Three Centuries of Looks), mounted in association with this year’s Cinema Ritrovato. To me, they encapsulated the special nature of Bologna’s annual celebration of newly discovered and restored cinema. This is not a film festival where you’re swept up in the latest, the hottest, the next-big-thing.
Instead you’re invited to look back, and think about all the films, all the lives that have been there before this moment. Some elements of cinema’s past remain in one form or other, outlasting the lives that were caught in those images or created them, to think of all the lives that have shared those images.
In the giddy race ahead we can forget to look back, and miss the treasures of the past, overlook how we got here, neglect the people who have shaped or shared this journey, not ponder the wonder of watching a film. It’s more than an experience you’re sharing just with those in the cinema with you now, but with countless others over the years, in cinemas now vanished, and lives that were perhaps touched by that film in ways we may never have imagined.
Each year Cinema Ritrovato (2017 was the 31st edition) looks back and gathers a cornucopia from cinema’s history, and gives us a selection that proposes many ways of making sense and value out of that past.
Part of its task is celebrating those traces of that past that are deteriorating. It’s salutary to be reminded that films don’t have the solidity of those Bologna streetscapes. Even more, that there are films we hadn’t thought would benefit from restoration, such as some of those in this year’s Festival – Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1932), Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932), Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945), Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954), The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967).
Then there are titles that have been invisible and unknown for too many years (or only viewable in prints so poor that they might as well be invisible.) One was Frank Borzage’s Secrets (1924). Borzage’s reputation has soared in recent years, particularly with restorations of such wonderful films as 7th Heaven (1927) and Street Angel (1928), as well as his sound films. He made his first film in 1913, and by 1924 already had a long list of credits.
Secrets in a way is three separate films. The first part, set in an aristocratic London home with twenty-foot ceilings as they had in the movies of that era, is a light romantic comedy with Mary defying her ship-owning father to elope to America with John, one of his employees. The second part is a western, with cattle rustlers, lynchings and heroic shootouts. And the third part is a melodrama of marital infidelity. But all meld together, especially through the presence of star Norma Talmadge.
A high example of the popular film of the twenties, this was scripted by Frances Marion one of the key female contributors to early cinema, and no doubt responsible for the strong affirmation of the strength, insight and sensitivity of women. They are the glue that holds a marriage, a family together when the male strays. Interestingly Borzage was involved in a remake of the film in 1933 with Mary Pickford, her last film. This was started by another director, Marshall Nielan whom Pickford fired early on. But some of the decisions in structure, locations and story no doubt were already made, and these make it a less satisfying film. Talmadge is terrific in the original.
But the rediscoveries can take us further back than the twenties. Cinema Ritrovato always invites us to look back at films from one hundred years ago. Not that they’re always worth looking back at. La tragica fine de Caligula imperatore (Caligula, Ugo Falena, 1917) seemed unaware of the strides in filmmaking and acting that had already happened in the two decades since the birth of the Cinema. The opening, cross-cutting between a group of wandering Christians, and Caligula losing his mind after the death of his son, promised some sophistication. But then came a parade of scenes staged with no sense of the cinema’s possibilities, and performances that were laughable in their flouncing and fakery. A case where the restoration efforts seemed wasted.
By contrast, another Italian film from the same year Le mogli e le arance (Wives and Oranges, Luigi Serventi) showed that there were filmmakers in Italy who were aware of the potential of film. Its approach to the game between the sexes is certainly dated, but it is a film confident enough to dwell on atmosphere with its fairytale story almost an excuse for that.
Another film from the “100 Years Ago” strand reminded us of just how wonderful films had already come by 1917. Incredibly, Victor Sjöström’s “Tösen från Stormyrtorpet” (The Girl from the Marsh Croft, 1917) is preceded in his filmography by at least 30 films. Adapted from a novel by Nobel Prize Winner Selma Lagerlöf, the heroine is a “fallen girl” who would rather live with the shame than have her seducer swear a false oath and damn his soul. True, these are nineteenth century moralities. But Sjöström’s approach, its simplicity, its sense of nature, its direct way into the hearts and souls of his characters – these all give us a film that still resonates, and invites us still to contemplate the way that one person’s integrity can resonate through a whole community.
Visually, the film reflects the limitations of the technology of its day. Film stock was slow, and so interiors are clearly built outside, open to full sunlight. And events are structured so many dramatic moments take place outdoors. But these limitations seem to be embraced by Sjöström as elements that support him in creating a sense of a rural community in all its beauty and solidarity.
Other films from 1917 showed that there has always been a wide range in achievement, especially when we can look at filmmaking around the world. Le Coupable (The Guilty One, André Antoine, 1917) was a satisfying story in the social realist mode, with its subject a boy and what a bad hand society has dealt him – abandoned by his mother to an abusive foster father, then rejected and institutionalised, drifting into bad company. Already for 1917, the film uses an interesting framing device – the young man is on trial for murder and, yes, he did commit it. But the prosecutor breaks from the usual court procedures to confess to being his father and so claiming the guilt. Cue the flashback. The film doesn’t have the emotional impact it could have – it’s a shame there were no scenes between the father and son today. But it’s a strong film, and a very early example of a film from France looking at the impact of troubled upbringings – from Peau de Pêche (Marie Epstein, Jean Benôit-Levy, 1929) 1 to Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, François Truffaut 1959) and beyond.
Tepeyac (Carlos E. González) was another film from 1917, this time from Mexico. Definitely not a particularly well made film, even allowing for its age, it was an instance of a film worth seeing for its insights into a particular time and place. Catholic Mexico has a special reverence for its Virgin of Guadalupe, and this tells about how she came to Mexico, as well as how she still is part of the lives of Mexicans. A framing device has a young diplomat being given the virgin’s medal before setting out on a hazardous trip to Europe. Then we flash back to her appearances before a peasant on the hill of Tepeyac in 1531, and how the peasant had to convince the church authorities to build a church on the hill as the virgin had asked. There is a naivety to the production, epitomised by the tonsures of the monks – the most obvious skull caps with fringes of hair, looking more like kids’ novelty hats than a mark of devoutness. The success of the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe is attributed by many scholars to the fact that it combined elements of Catholicism of its day with major religious and cultural aspects of the then recently conquered Aztecs, though this is never explored or even hinted at in the film.
Another curio with a religious background was The 26 Japanese Martyrs (Junkyo Kesshi Nihon Nijuroku Seijin, Tomiyasu Ikeda, 1931), a fascinating insight into Japan in 1931. Japan is a Buddhist nation, but this is a very Catholic film, presumably made by the Japanese Catholic community of the day. It celebrates 26 martyrs from the period when the Japanese authorities pushed back against Christian missionaries in events that also formed the background for Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016). This is not a film that is interrogating these events, but is rather a film of sheer faith, here exemplified by the saintly (and rather naive) way that the youngest of the martyrs, a boy of about ten looks forward to his martyrdom with pious joy, not dread or fear. The print of the film was one that was recently found among assets of the Salesians in Italy, and had been one prepared for Italian audiences. The film itself would appear unaltered (apart from replacing the original Japanese intertitles for the silent film with Italian subtitles.) But there was a coda with details of the work of Italian missionaries overseas, and extolling the virtues of making a donation to help the cause, a sign of that film’s own history.
Let us go even further back to the start of Cinema, and the memory of people who moved through the world at the end of the nineteenth century. The films of the Mutoscope and Biograph Companies from 1897 are only about a minute long. They usually catch a moment such as a threshing machine at work, a pillow fight, a camp of Zingari gipsies, or places such as the Place de la Concorde. But they can still astound us today with the clarity of the photography, originally filmed on 68mm stock. In one, your eye is drawn to the lifesavers in the bottom left of the frame. You’re aware of how clearly visible are people about half a beach away and across the road at the back of the image. And in all of them you can sense the cameramen bursting to find out ways to capture action – put your camera in a position where it can film the train racing toward it, or put it on the train itself and catch the world whizzing past, for example.
The early days of movies also brought other worlds to audiences in a way unknown before then. Another Bologna presentation was a reel of scenes photographed by the Lumière Company in Egypt in 1896. These survived because an early film collector had found them and about thirty years later edited them together into one reel. The first scenes focus more on European tourists than on Egyptian or Ottoman subjects. “Orientalism” is evident in the representation of the Egyptians who are either marginalised or seen as exotic. There was only one scene of the Pyramids and the Sphinx and not much of an acknowledgement of our contemporary fascination with the world of Ancient Egypt.
Among the ghosts and shapes of 120 years of filmmaking, some presences have overshadowed others. Sometimes this is fully understandable. In recent years, Iranian cinema has made a stunning impact, through the work of Kiarostami, Panahi, Farhadi, Makhmalbaf and more. Where did they come from? Were there earlier Iranian directors from whom they’ve evolved? Cinema Ritrovato invited us to look at one possible ancestor, Armenian born Samuel (or Samouel) Khachikian. The program here selected four titles from the 33 films he made between 1953 and 1994, “films which Khachikian’s admirers and the director himself considered the peak of his cinematic achievements – key works by Iranian cinema’s first ‘name above the title’” 2
Crossroad of Events (Chahar rah-e havades, 1955) was his fourth film, and won best film prize at the first Iranian Film Festival at Golrizan. But time and distance have not been kind to it. Khachikian was clearly an ambitious filmmaker, trying to do something with the elements of cinema at his disposal. But ambition does not mean ability. Plot points are signalled so obviously, lighting is over-determined (think of a slash of light over the hero’s eyes), action is not well-covered. Sadly, many countries have had film pioneers with a fire to make films, with some awareness of how cinema can achieve its impact, but unable to integrate the elements into effectively and simply telling their story. Khachikian did not seem to me to be someone we needed to know more about.
But if films are “shadows” of when they were made, one featured filmmaker seemed strangely out of the real source of light of world, at least in some of his films. This was the German Helmut Käutner. Curator Olaf Möller claimed his “tribute focuses strongly on Käutner, the ironic modernist of melancholia, inventor of cinematic forms, avant-gardist of the popular.” From the three film is saw I didn’t feel this case was made.
Two were made in the last days of the Nazi regime, not that you’d know it from the films themselves. Grosse Freiheit Nr. 7 was made in 1944, but was a film almost completely divorced from its time. Of course, there is no reason why every film made in Germany in 1944 should specifically embody the external, political world. In war time governments often see high value in escapist entertainments set in never-never lands. But when the story is supposedly contemporary the absence of any swastikas or brown shirts feels like a deliberate denial, an avoidance of reality.
Two merchant sailors return to Hamburg and on shore leave catch up with a third comrade, now performing in a nightclub, and resume their long friendship. But it’s put under strain when a woman enters the picture. Perhaps Käutner wanted a “world-weary melodrama whose doom-laden mood and non-conformist spirit” would reflect Germany at the point where the war was turning against the country. The authorities certainly had problems with the film when they saw it, and added “Nr 7” to the title so instead of sounding ironic (“grosse freiheit” or great freedom) became a simple street name and number.
So, intentions may have been worthy. But they are undermined by characterisations and relationships that are manufactured rather than credible. The camaraderie is projected at double strength, just so we get the point. Käutner’s framing and composition in the tight Academy ratio does have an unusual feel, but he doesn’t really show a flair for staging action.
Unter den brücken (Under the Bridges, Germany, 1945-49) was shot in 1944 but not released until after the war. Its story somewhat replicates Grosse Freiheit Nr. 7 – here it’s two mates on a river barge who vie for the same girl. Their barge is sailing through the Germany of its day – yet one with no bomb damage visible. The film inevitably recalls L’Atalante (Jean Vigo, 1934), but the comparison draws attention to a lack of lyricism or warmth here. The relationships are always more stated than felt or embodied.
A decade on Käutner did tackle history directly in Ludwig II – Glanz und Ende eines Königs (Mad Emperor Ludwig II¸ 1955). Ludwig has been the subject of many films, with Luchino Visconti’s Ludwig (1973) the best known. Käutner’s film, as well as having the benefit of the wonderful locations of Ludwig’s fairy tale palaces, has ravishing colour photography by the great British cinematographer, Douglas Slocombe. The art direction is by Hein Heckroth who designed some of Michael Powell’s most wonderful films.
But to me this was the least interesting version of Ludwig’s life that I’ve seen. Its structure is ponderous and unimaginative, with no attempt to craft a strong through-line or attitude to Ludwig’s life. Why was he a recluse? What was his relationship with his kingdom and his people? (William Dieterle’s 1930 Ludwig der Zweite [Ludwig II] is very good on this, as I discussed in an earlier article on films about Ludwig.)3 His presumed homosexuality is no-where hinted at or even considered, though perhaps the moral climate of the 1950s can be used as an excuse here. (Though the program note makes a rather specious claim that it can be sensed in the film.)
How Ludwig died is one of the compelling elements in his story. Historical argument usually revolves about whether it was suicide or political murder. In Käutner’s interpretation it is an anticlimactic accidental drowning (which of course is a possibility) as Ludwig attempts to escape after murdering his doctor. But this doesn’t convince and comes across as an attempt to airbrush history, and avoid airing any dirty linen. Filming is dull, with an overuse of a high angle camera looking down on the king. Dialogue scenes have no life- and there are many of these because they’re a lazy way of giving us slabs of information.
Cinema Ritrovato has continued to pay respect to the cinemas of Africa, Asia and Latin America (though Australia has been rather overlooked.) This year’s Japanese focus was on Japanese jidai-geki, period films, in this case those made under the militarist regime of the late 1930s, a selection showcasing a range of approaches to telling stories from Japan’s feudal period. The Night Before (Sono zen’ya, Ryo Hagiwara, 1939) approached its history obliquely, presenting the impact of feudal rivalries indirectly in the family of an incompetent innkeeper and his family. The Giant (Kyojinden, Mansaku Itami, 1938) adapted Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” to 19th century Japan. The first half, focused on the Jean Valjean figure worked better than the second half that seemed to be seeing how it could pack in all of Hugo’s characters and event. The Rise of Bandits (Sengoku guntoden, Eisuke Takizawa, 1937) also was also partly based on European literature, Schiller’s “The Robbers”. Its story of bandits, a family and a shipment of gold could easily be a Western in all but location. Sadly, all the Japanese films suffered from poor prints that frequently made it difficult to distinguish characters or see the necessary details. This was a disservice to the quality of the films and the selection. At what point is a film’s print so unsatisfactory that it would be better to not show it?
From Latin America, a selection of Mexican films was shown under the heading, Revolution and Adventure: Mexican Cinema in the Golden Age, a collection challenging some of the popular images of Mexican culture. Two Monks (Dos monjes, Juan Bustillo Oro, 1934) is a gothic story set in a monastery, where two monks cross paths again after a previous rivalry over a woman, a rivalry that has affected the mental stability of both. A highlight is the delirious impressionistic production design, with its rooms of indeterminate size and shape, created out of studio walls, swathes of cloth and any other material at hand.
Melodrama was a forte of Mexican cinema at least from the thirties. (Think of some of Buñuel’s Mexican films.) Aventurera (Golddigger, Alberto ‘Tito’ Gout, 1950) is probably more typical than it should be. The story of one woman seeking revenge on the woman who debased her has too many contrived events there just to propel the narrative along. Elena comes home early, and finds her mother with another man which immediately leads to her father’s suicide, leaving the girl alone in the world – all within a few moments of the film starting. A few more encounters and she’s a top cabaret star. The lead actress is Ninón Sevilla, but to me she had no charisma. She was a rather clumsy dancer and a limited actor, which didn’t help a melodrama that tried to throw everything into the mix.
More rewarding was Maclovia (Emilio ‘Il Indio’ Fernández, 1948). An island in the middle of a lake and its fishing community are beautifully photographed by the legendary cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa. The image of the boats on the lake with their butterfly nets, and the final Night of the Dead sequence are poems in black-and-white. The slow pace of the film and the use of a real village and its people give the film a neo-realist feel. The villain of the piece, the Sergeant who is stationed on the island and who covets Maclovia, is the weak point of the film, a characterisation (in both writing and performance) that lacks subtlety. The film is memorable for the way it expresses its sympathies with the natives, their ways of life, culture and codes– think of the scene where our illiterate hero José Maria goes back to school to learn to write so he can send a letter to Maclovia, whom he’s been forbidden to talk to. (And who wouldn’t make this effort, when she’s played by Maria Félix?)
Cinema Ritrovato is such a richness of treasures, even just naming what was on takes pages. I’m not going to be able to discuss some of the treasures from the early years of Universal Pictures, an overdue focus on early Hollywood director William K. Howard, and another on Robert Mitchum. Or Le Centre Georges Pompidou, the film Roberto Rossellini was working on at his death,
But I cannot leave Bologna without looking at this year’s instalment of work from the Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, the strand that provided me with some of my most rewarding viewing. To date the World Cinema Project has restored 31 films from countries such as Armenia, Egypt, Iran, Kazakhstan, Senegal, Turkey. Not all are great films, but others should never have vanished from sight. (Lettre á la prison [Marc Scialom, 1969-70], seen at the 2013 Festival remains one of the most memorable films I’ve seen in a long while.) 4
This year the Project revealed recent work on films from Cuba, and Mauritian director Med Hondo.
Cuban cinema became an important tool in its cultural realignment after the Castro-led revolution in 1959. Freed from the imperative of competing at the bottom of the pile with slick Hollywood entertainments, many directors made films that were cinematically adventurous. One was Tomás Gutiérrez Aléa. Several of his films were released around the world including Memorias del Subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment, 1968) and Muerte de un burócrata (Death of a Bureaucrat, 1966).
After these works, his next film was Una pelea cubane contra los demonios (A Cuban Fight Against Demons, 1971). This was adapted from a 1959 essay in which Fernando Ortiz Fernández analysed a 17th century incident in which the priest of the coastal town Remedios convinced many of his congregation that pirate attacks were part of Lucifer’s army preying on the town, and so it would have to be moved in its entirety to a new location.
This incident is the frame for a complex impressionistic tapestry, with the camera weaving in and out and among the people involved – an over-pious member of the church, villagers, landowners and sugar growers, colonial officials. The event is not directly chronological, and it is sometimes a challenge to re-create its direct narrative. But this is truly original filmmaking, from a director pushing his boundaries rather than falling into simplistic propaganda.
Mauritian born Med Hondo for me was the discovery of the Festival. He was born in Mauritania in 1936 – and was in Bologna to introduce his films, in beautiful restorations from the World Cinema Project. Hondo worked as a chef in Morocco before migrating to France as a 25 year-old in 1959. He gravitated to acting and the theatre, but his difficulties in making a living as an African immigrant spurred him move into filmmaking. His first film, Soleil Ô (1970) was able to be restored with materials deposited by Hondo with the audiovisual archives of the French Communist Party.
In jotting down an aide-memoire after seeing this, I scribbled, “A black goes around Paris looking for his Gallic roots. Polemical, political filmmaking, opinionated and unbalanced and angry. And these are not pejorative terms for this film, because the passion is so real, and the filmmaking is of such a high cinematic standard.”
Of course, it is biased. But then Hondo had firsthand experience of what he was talking about, and why should he be expected to make his film more comfortable for white audiences? Clearly, behind his film is a very strong insight into the racial and political issues – and anger. The statements emerge powerfully – but as real cries not slogans. For, as well as being a political thinker, Hondo is an artist able to turn his ideas into images.
Writing at the time of the film’s release he said, “…as the West continues to expand itself economically, the more it will need black labor. And so Africa will always be an undeveloped continent: saying the contrary is a lie!…The original idea was to show tourist spots packed with black only. All of a sudden you would see Sacré-Cœur, and you would see only blacks. It would have had a powerful cinematographic impact. But the idea remained on paper and wasn’t translated into images.” If he couldn’t create those images, the film showed he had many more visual ideas.
West Indies (1979) is surely a masterpiece – a look at the long story of colonisation, over a period of about 400 years, its exploitative nature and its impact. Again, it is political, polemical – and powerful. It is filmed on a theatrical set in a film studio, a sailing ship that recalls the slave ships, but can be a dockside, or a seat of colonial power. If words alone cannot express the feelings of blacks forced into slavery, perhaps a dance can convey this. It moves easily from surreal satire, to realistic tableaux.
Through it all, Hondo’s camera moves with the assurance of a true filmmaker, linking scenes, decades and centuries. Rich colour is used to convey the richness of the exploited culture, and show up the decadence and inhumanity of the exploiters. It’s not a film to engage your romantic emotions, but its use of music and rhythm, widescreen and editing do engage you intellectually and philosophically. This is unique film making.
Hondo has made only nine films as director, though he has been involved in many more, often as a voice actor, dubbing American actors such as Danny Glover for French audiences. It was beautiful to be in the audience at Bologna, and share the deep emotion with which he responded to experiencing the warmth and sincerity of this audience in 2017 reacting to his work from forty years ago. These are the revelations for which Bologna and Cinema Ritrovato is so to be valued.
21 June – 2 July 2017
Festival website: https://festival.ilcinemaritrovato.it/en/
- See notes from Cinema Ritrovato Report 2016 http://sensesofcinema.com/2016/festival-reports/il-cinema-ritrovato-2016/ ↩
- Il Cinema Ritrovato XXXI edizione, Bologna 24 giugno 2 luglio 2017. Program note by curator Ehsan Khoshbakht. ↩
- http://sensesofcinema.com/2011/feature-articles/king-ludwig-ii-of-bavaria-representations-in-the-cinema-1920%E2%80%931986/ ↩
- See my report for Senses of Cinema here: http://sensesofcinema.com/2013/festival-reports/a-model-shop-for-retrieved-cinema-the-27th-cinema-ritrovato/ . ↩