It was not the typical balmy Bolognese summer’s night – I was grateful for a pullover – but the Piazza Maggiore was more crowded than I can remember for any of Cinema Ritrovato’s Piazza screenings, on the first evening of the 2018 edition of the festival, its 32nd. The crowd was probably not for the film, a newly restored 1946 Mexican film, Enamorada, directed by Emilio Fernandez, even though Fernandez is reputedly the model for the Oscar statuette, and one of the most prolific directors of the so-called Mexican Golden Age of Cinema in the 1940s and 1950s. Or was it because a mariachi band was setting the Mexican atmosphere as daylight faded into night. Rather it was the anticipated presence of Martin Scorsese who was to introduce the film.
Marty was not there to spruik his latest film, but in his role as one of the world’s best known cinephiles, advocating for the love of cinema at this festival which has itself long been the leading Festival for all facets of cinephilia. In particular he was introducing this Mexican melodrama, over 70 years old and carefully restored through the Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project. Scorsese is its chair. This project, through the restoration to date of 32 films in particular from Asia, Africa and Latin America, is a clear endorsement of the proposition that there is more to film appreciation than old Hollywood films and French cultural masterpieces.
In fact, this advocacy of many approaches to cinema is one of the special features of Cinema Ritrovato. Organisers claim a total of over 500 titles were screened this year. These ranged from fragments of only a matter of seconds, to the 320 minutes of Wolves of Kultur (Joseph A. Golden), a rather indifferent serial made in 1918, and screened daily, episode by episode, to showcase work being undertaken on the Cinema Modernissimo. This cinema operated near the Piazza Magiore from 1915 to 2007, and is itself being restored for future editions of the Festival.
Through the curating of these films, the Festival proposes a wider range of approaches to valuing our cinematic culture and heritage than we usually experience in a film festival.
An important strand of the Festival for many years has been A Hundred Years Ago, so this year it was films from 1918. This was obviously a significant year in World History, with the end of World War I. And the cinema was now an established and efficient entertainment industry. A Ritrovato programmer could easily schedule her available screening slots with now well-known films from for example, D.W. Griffith (Hearts of the World), or Harold Lloyd (Fireman, Save My Child or any of a number of other shorts), or Victor Sjöström (The Outlaw and His Wife). But the only film in that category here was Charles Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms (USA, 1918), programmed because of a new restoration, uncharacteristically tinted, based on a Swiss distribution nitrate print deposited in a Swiss archive in 1998 by a film collector.
By 1918, Louis Feuillade had already produced his wondrous serials Fantômas (1913-14), Les Vampires (The Vampires, 1915) and Judex (1916). In 1918, as the war was raging over France, he made Vendémiaire, though it was not released until 1919. If this title seems familiar, it’s because during the French Revolution the name was appropriated to rename the month when the Grape Harvest takes place. And most of Vendémiaire takes place during harvest time.
At a time when early propaganda films were being filled with stories of Huns raping and pillaging (and no doubt Germany had equivalent films of its enemies) this takes a more interesting angle. Rather it is a film about the essential nature of France, a France of great wines, and families working together to bring in a harvest. This is what is threatened by the Bosch! This focus on what our country means to us, and what we must defend, recalls the World War II films of Michael Powell such as A Canterbury Tale (1944).
Much of the film was clearly shot on location, including many “interiors” which were shot on outside sets, rather than in studios. There is not the same use of action staged over several planes of the image which is a feature of the serials, but then this is also a more realistic story, rather than a fantasy/fiction. It is in four parts, though parts 1 and 4 are shorter, meaning the film is rather like a two-part mini-series, and it was screened appropriately in this way at Bologna. The style is appropriate for its subject, and that very particular time at the end of four years of war, even if Vendémiaire does not reach the heights of the earlier serials.
Reminding us that filmmaking does not mean just what is happening in the USA, were two other films, Otec Sergij (Father Sergius, Jakov Protazanov, Russia 1918) and Učitel orientálních jazyků (The Oriental Language Teacher, Olga Rautenkranzovà, Jan S. Kolár, Czechoslovakia 1918). Father Sergius is adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s posthumously published short story, about a dashing young soldier whose pride is so wounded when he learns his fiancée has had an affair that he retreats into a religious life. Father Sergius bears similarities to several other somewhat autobiographical Tolstoy characters such as Levin in Anna Karenina and Pierre in War and Peace. Father Sergius’ adoption of a withdrawn, holy, devout, hermetic life is somewhat improbable, a “purity at all costs”. But if we are somewhat bemused at how a person can turn his back on life so completely, we are overwhelmed by the performance of Ivan Mozzhukhin. 1 He is just as credible as the handsome young officer at the start of the story, as he is as at the end, an aged, wild-haired, stooped man.
The Oriental Language Teacher raises other thoughts about how we look at the cinema of the past. As a film, it is really nothing special. It is an amusing little piece about two lovers trying to win her father’s approval. She magically acquires the skill to teach Turkish, so (in disguise) she is able to “teach” the language to her lover. Other than that, it is not distinguished in any way, apart from being a “typical” film of its era. As such, it is a little insight into the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is also an example of an early female filmmaker, though not one whose career extended beyond this. Would we be so reverential for an equivalent film from today?
A major approach to cinema has been to revere the director as auteur, and programming strands were built around particular directors, as well as screenings of little-known or recently restored films by name directors. These can be revelations – or devastations. G.W. Pabst made Geheimnisvolle Tiefe (Mysterious Shadows) in Austria in 1949. Was this really the man who made Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box 1929) or Westfront 1918 (1930)? This story of a socialite who did not marry the man she loved, a speleologist, is badly written, and relies on its overwrought dialogue almost at the expense of any visuals, with little of the psychological or social exploration you’d expect from his pre-war films.
Raoul Walsh and John Ford were two other “pantheon” directors, represented by little-known (and minor) films. Woman of All Nations (1931) doesn’t damage Walsh’s reputation as much as the Pabst film does his, but it doesn’t exactly burnish it either. It takes a couple of characters from his earlier, much more highly regarded What Price Glory (1926) and sends them on various escapades loosely tied into a single film. There’s not much plot, just a framework on which to hang some bawdy (pre-Code) sketches. With Walsh, there is a liveliness to it, but there is little attention to characterisation in a film more ready to fall back on a few racial stereotypes and rather corny gags.
John Ford also made The Brat in 1931. An author on the lookout for character material “rescues” a girl from Night Court and takes her home to “study” her for his next novel. Home is a massive mansion with servants and an overpowering socialite mother, who wants to sell her younger son’s inheritance to buy the spoiled author son a yacht. This is not typical Ford material, and rather smacks of a studio assignment. The upper-class scenes are artificial and lifeless, but the long opening section in the Night Court is lively and full of colourful Ford characters. He clearly likes them more than the stuffed shirts.
Two directors given more detailed treatment could hardly have been more different, John M. Stahl and Yılmaz Güney. IMDB lists 47 directorial credits for John Stahl, in the 35 years after 1914, including the original versions of Back Street (1932), Imitation of Life (1934) and Magnificent Obsession (1935). Cinema Ritrovato screened seven, including one silent film (The Woman Under Oath¸ 1919).2 One element that emerges clearly is Stahl’s commitment to social issues. The Woman Under Oath is a melodrama from a time when women were not allowed to sit on juries in New York State – and it can be seen as an argument for what contribution to justice they can make. However (and I’m avoiding spoilers) how our female juror sways the case is highly melodramatic, and implausible to boot. And the usual mantra that the guilty must pay is glossed over, because the victim “was a rat and deserved it.”
Imitation of Life tackles issues of racism head-on, and with a warmth not often present in films dealing with white-black friendships, certainly in the 1930s. When Tomorrow Comes (1939) is minor Stahl, but shows how Stahl could shoe-horn social issues into a romance between a waitress and a concert pianist. The film opens with waitress Irene Dunne’s workplace involved in a labour dispute. This sequence is arguably not necessarily for Dunne and Charles Boyer to “meet cute” but it is filmed with such vitality and conviction that you sense that Stahl is completely on the side of exploited labour, in a way we do not usually see in Hollywood films. A number of Stahl’s films were remade by Douglas Sirk, including this one which was remade as Interlude (1956).3
Yılmaz Güney (1937-84) is an interesting personality in film history, and evidence for the value of looking beyond the well-known Anglophone and Western European cinemas. He first achieved fame in Turkey as an actor, usually playing the brooding, silent macho hero. When he turned to direction in 1968 with Seyyit han (also known as Bride of the Earth) he carried this character into the film, a man returning to his village after seven years to find the woman he loves is set to marry the man who is responsible for his absence from the village. Güney is a charismatic figure, in his dark overcoat, light knitted cap and dark stubble framing a handsome face.
Much of the action is highly cinematic, silences, shadows, menacing close-ups and cross-cuts. The opening sequence could almost be a pastiche of the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone) – except both films were released in 1968 with Güney’s possibly being the first screened. The final sequence is less effective, with the climactic shoot-out being prolonged, several bullets too many, and the hero’s dying contortions lasting beyond credibility.
If his first film demonstrated a tension between his need to be commercial and a desire to make a personal statement, his second film Umut (Hope, 1970) clearly settled into the second field. Social anger at the condition of the poor in Turkey is palpable in the story of a man who supports his family as a horse-cab driver. Güney draws a stark picture of the daily life of such a man, from the opening sequence of an early morning city waking up for the day. As Güney shows us, this is the time when the invisible poor do the city’s menial tasks, clearing its rubbish, washing the streets. With this film, Güney had not yet hit his stride, and the film has elements of being just a catalogue of one bad thing after another for Cabbar. The final sequence, a protracted search for the dream of a treasure, is extended beyond its welcome. Güney’s political commitment led to a fractured cinematic career, with 12 years in prison on political charges. Several of his later films were “directed by proxy from prison” including Yol (1981), which shared the 1982 Palme d’Or at Cannes.
Another curatorial approach was to highlight one year – 1934 – in the USSR, with the claim that it was, as described by Grigori Kozintsev years later, a “Second Utopia” for filmmakers. Sound technology was making an impact, and it was a year of relative political freedom. Based on two that I saw, the jury is still out on the greater aesthetic quality of the films. Chapaev was made in 1934 by the Vasilyev Brothers (who were not brothers but used this pseudonym because they had the same surname) and is a fictionalised biography of the titular hero of the Russian Civil War. At this distance from the Civil War, his antics mainly seem tiresome, and there was nothing distinguished about the direction.
Lieutenant Kijé (d. Aleksandr Faintsimmer) is at least still known today because of the orchestral suite composer Sergei Prokofiev made from his music for the film. Lieutenant Kijé was a creation of some bureaucrats in a report to the tsar to cover up some blunder they’d made. But the Tsar becomes so interested in Kijé that they have to create an existence for him and keep the Tsar updated with his wonderful exploits. It’s a good premise for a satire on the bureaucracy. But that’s not what we get here. Instead, we have a poorly paced, desperately unfunny film. Scenes meant to drip with irony are so obvious and overstated they have no impact. And in his first film score, Prokofiev does not really stand out as a film composer. It’s good music as the long life of the concert suite attests, but it hardly becomes an integral part of the film.
Another strand was “Napoli che canta” (“The Naples That Sings”), spotlighting Neapolitan filmmaking and its contribution to Italian cinema from at least the 1910s. Some of the films, even from the silent era, were based on popular Neapolitan songs. One film proved a strong nostalgia hit for me. When I was still in high school in a small country town with a high number of Italian migrants, one local cinema showed Italian movies from time to time. One I remembered as something different was Neapolitan Carousel. Over the years, the details had slipped from memory, but not the overall bright impact. This year in Bologna here it was in a new, beautiful restoration. Ettore Giannini made Carosello Napoletano in 1953. In it, a song peddler and his family are evicted from their hovel. A gust of wind scatters all the sheet music from around his barrel organ. These songs become the episodes we follow. This does give the film some structure, but it is a loose structure, and often we lack a strong character to follow, as we’re swept along at an almost giddy pace at the same time we enjoy the music and the dances. In ways, it’s a history of Naples through its songs, starting with an old song Michellemmà, and then through the 19th- and 20th-centuries with songs well-known (Funiculì funiculà) or less familiar.
The film’s nearest relative would have to be Powell/Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffmann (1951) (Leonide Massine in fact choreographed and danced in both films). This is an artificial world, created in a studio, with a bright Pathécolor palette. Hundreds of vivid costumes swirl and dance, and the world is a flow of song and movement. It is a vivid, musical world that can also bear comparison to some of best MGM musicals of that period, and is just as entertaining. Not unexpectedly, it doesn’t really explore some of the darker or more tragic sides of Naples’ history – the dreadful period of World War II is almost ignored, though then it would have been so deep in the minds of the film’s original audience. It even perhaps moves too fast. Neapolitan songs are so delightfully insidious, that it’s a pleasure to enjoy them for four or five verses – but here we often only get one verse before we’re off to another. A 19 year-old Sophia Loren is about tenth in the billing.
And back to Martin Scorsese. Apart from his own films, he is known as a champion of so many glories of the world’s cinema. Not just Hollywood from its well-known to its hidden gems, but the films of many other countries and directors. He has been tireless in the field of film preservation, and has used his fame to promote an understanding of the need to protect the heritage of the cinema.
One of his projects is the World Cinema Project. This has already retrieved and restored 32 films from Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Central and South America. Over the past years, these restorations have been the backbone of Cinema Ritrovato’s World Cinema strand, this year renamed Cinemalibero. The Project’s contribution this year included the Piazza’s opening night screening of Mexico’s Enamorada. Set in one of Mexico’s revolutionary periods, it’s a melodrama about a revolutionary who takes over a small town, but finds things become complicated when he’s attracted to the beautiful Senorita Beatriz (Maria Felix). It’s an engaging story, now mainly to be revered for the luminous cinematography of the great Gabriel Figueroa.
The Cinemalibero strand also draws in films restored by other laboratories, including several in the Third World. The African titles provided me with the most satisfaction, even if I didn’t have the sense of excited discovery that I did last year with the films of Med Hondo.4 The influence of French culture is strong in the best films. I wonder if this aspect has made these films appreciated outside Africa more than within their original country? Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Hyènes (Hyenas, 1992) is even adapted from a very European drama, Durrenmatt’s The Visit. From this very middle European story, Mambety has created a very African story. He vividly creates the Senegalese village to which a woman returns, with a price on the head of the shopkeeper who, before her return, was one of the most popular people. The film evolves into a satire on consumerism as the villagers anticipate getting the reward and start demanding the best brandy, the best produce, fans – and even air conditioning. The narrative moves at a different pace to European cinema, a languid, sun-beaten mood, with crisp, clear, bright visuals.
The Nigerian film, A Deusa Negra (Black Goddess, Ola Balogun 1978), was a rich film, starting with a prologue of slavers rounding up natives to ship to the Americas. Back in the present, a dying man asks his grandson to fulfill the oath he failed to do, to re-establish contact with descendants of their family taken as slaves to the New World. This takes the grandson to Brazil. During his quest, we have a long flashback to the days of slavery. This structure gives the film a richness, as it explores slavery itself from the dislocation of Africans to their lives under slave owners, through to the legacy of this practice on both the slaves’ original homeland and the land that has become home to their descendants. The music for the film sounds like a jazz ensemble improvising under the film. This might seem an inappropriate approach for this story yet it worked effectively, almost like street music.
This film was, however, an example of why so many films need and deserve proper restoration, if good materials can be found. The print was sourced from Japan with Japanese subtitles down the right hand side of the screen, and colour fading to yellow.
What it could have looked like, with the impact of that bright African (and Brazilian) light, was shown in Fad’Jal (1979) , the first film of Senegalese filmmaker, Safi Faye. Although originally shot on 16mm it was restored this year with the cooperation of the director herself. The colours of the village were alive, the blazingly blue sky, the rust red dirt, and ochre yellows. At first impression this is a modest film, a simple documentary about a small village in Senegal. We see many aspects of its daily life, food preparation, children playing, men going out hunting, elders passing on their knowledge to the new generation. And we see special occasions such as the practices when a man dies including the slaughter of a bull to share the meat among all villagers.
But in an unobtrusive way, Faye makes much more of this, in a way you don’t realise until well after you’ve left the village. The opening scene is in the village school, dirt floor, a few walls and a roof of corrugated iron, windows and doorway open to the day. The teacher is taking students through a history lesson. And the top student shows he is able to repeat parrot fashion some facts about Louis XIV. How incongruous this is – dusty black students in ragged clothing in this poorly equipped classroom and the African heat intoning about such a remote over-dressed long dead European monarch. The next scene cuts to a large tree, with a group of boys gathered around one of the elders. He is telling them about how their village was founded, who were some of the village’s heroes in the past. What a contrast! This is history that means something to them.
We never return to the school, but we do come back to the boys and the elders under the trees in a way that not only moves the film onto new aspects of village life, but gives a shape to the film. Later we are there when the Government introduces new laws making the state the owner of all land in the country. We can understand this in the context of this village and the traditions and history that the elder has shared with us. New history is being laid down. Interestingly, this moment is not a scene of dramatic conflict in the film. Rather, it almost seems to pass over us in a way that you could miss what it means. But of course its relevance is high, and it plays its part in the discourse on what is history.
Fad’Jal was perhaps my highlight from this year’s Cinema Ritrovato, and a compelling example of why we need the work of all the film historians and restorers, and a festival like Cinema Ritrovato.
23 June – 1 July 2018
Festival website: http://festival.ilcinemaritrovato.it/en/
- His name has various transliterations from the Russian. Perhaps he is better known in the French version, Ivan Mosjoukine, as he made a number of films in exile there after the Russian Revolution. He was also the face in the famous “Kuleshov effect demonstration.” ↩
- The Pordenone Film Festival (Le Giornate del cinema muto) will be screening a focus on the silent films in its 2018 program in October.) ↩
- http://sensesofcinema.com/2014/feature-articles/the-adaptation-and-the-remake-from-john-m-stahls-when-tomorrow-comes-to-douglas-sirks-interlude/. ↩
- http://sensesofcinema.com/2017/festival-reports/cinema-ritrovato-2017/ ↩