Ritrovati e Restaurati – Recovered and Restored – is one the programming strands for Bologna’s Cinema Ritrovato. These terms, along with “rescued” and “reassessed”, encapsulate what is special about this festival. Already too much of the cinema’s 120 year history has been lost, destroyed or deteriorated beyond recognition. The work of recovering and restoring this history is crucial. Cinema Ritrovato plays a vital part in making this recovered material available for reassessment.
But what comes first – reassessment or restoration? Can you determine priorities for restoration when existing materials are problematic, and when the worth of a rusty can of film may only be judged when it has gone through expensive restoration? Because a film has been restored does that automatically confer on it some superior status? Surely a bad film is a bad film, restored or not. But then a “bad” film can be significant because it throws light on other films, or events, or issues. And how do you really evaluate a film in a damaged, deteriorated condition? Anyway, what are our criteria for “valuing” a film? Is it because of its artistry or aesthetics, its value as a historical record or document, or because of its connection with other areas of life we consider important?
These questions engaged my mind, as I came to terms with a growing feeling of disappointment with this year’s Festival. Why didn’t I feel the excitement that I’ve felt in previous years? This year’s Cinema Ritrovato was the 33rd edition, and my eighth attending. There were 270 scheduled sessions, covering 20 different strands over nine days. It is challenging to assemble a personal schedule from this wealth.
There were some almost inexcusable programming clashes – why was the Cinemalibero strand exploring African cinema screened at the same time as the strand of films by Egyptian Youssef Chahine? Several times, the only offerings were in strands that did not have a strong initial appeal for me, though this “made” me see some films that actually were among my most interesting experiences of the festival.
This year, the Cinemalibero strand focused on Fespaco, celebrating its 50 year anniversary this year, as the first Semaine du cinéma africain was held in Ouagadougou, capital of then Upper Volta (now Burkino Faso) in 1969. Over 50 films made in a number of African nations such as Senegal, Niger, Upper Volta, Cameroon and Benin were screened. It was the impetus behind important moves by African filmmakers to reclaim their cultural identity. The Cinemalibero strand was “a tribute to the African and diaspora filmmakers who have placed memory and the archival question at the centre of the debate.” (Program note).
Baara (Soulemanne Cissé, 1978) could have been made by Ken Loach in Mali. At the centre of the film is a factory, with a new boss. The simple response by the owners to falling profits is to fire 200 people. Cissé creates the social web around the people connected to the factory, from the company director to the worker on the floor, so we have greater sympathy with people likely to be affected by such an action. But the state of the screened print raised questions around cinema’s heritage. Cissé himself was in attendance and at the film’s end roundly and repeatedly condemned the print screened, calling for its immediate destruction. The film was a victim of colour fade, to an almost brown monochrome. Is there any argument for screening a faded or damaged or incomplete print? Or should we have a chance to get some idea of what the film should be like? (In this case, an extra element was Cissé’s revelation of the existence of a complete negative.)
A Moroccan film from 1974, De quelques événements sans signification (About Some Meaningless Events, Mostafa Derkaoui) brought another question to my mind. When a film is not particularly good, or its value is limited to its original country, could our time have been more rewardingly filled? The relentless theme of the film is, why isn’t the Moroccan national cinema tackling social issues? A director making a documentary is posing this question to people in the street. Meanwhile, one of his cast is actually caught up in a major social crime. But the film we are watching seems to come from a director who has seen too many films using the then new lightweight cameras, but does not understand how to utilise the expressive aspects of the new technology. The film’s camerawork was so relentlessly in close-up you often didn’t know who was talking or being talked to. And apart from the suggestion that Moroccan films should be tackling social issues, it is bereft of a range of ideas or development of any further commentary.
Not surprisingly, the second feature from Med Hondo was a very different proposition, a film bursting with ideas, observations and stylistic exploration. It is almost impossible to categorise Les Bicots-nègres, vos voisins (Mauritania-France, 1974) (Arabs and Niggers, Your Neighbours) unless you call it a “discussion prompter”. Hondo has so many ideas, and the film is exploding with the complexity of his views on the place of Arabs and black people in French society. Their first exposure to belittlement was in their own countries when the French came to colonise and exploit. Even so, they came to the aid of France when she was in danger in World War II. Then they came to France to do the menial jobs the French wouldn’t do – cleaners, factory workers. When they go to the cinema, they don’t get their own stories on screen, but they do buy everything they’re sold there.
Hondo uses a range of segments to raise these points – monologue, round-table discussion, cinéma-vérité style sequence, satirical sketch, mini-drama sequence. This does not make it easy viewing, but you are sustained by absorbing how many complex ideas and attitudes are being expressed. The ideal way to see this film would be with a screening immediately followed by a discussion.1
La Petite vendeuse de soleil (The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun) was the last film from Senegalese director, Djibril Diop Mambéty who died before its release (at least in European film festivals) in 1999. A simple, short (45 minutes) film, it is a wonder. The film is dedicated to the street kids of Dakar, such as the little girl of the title. She lives with her blind grandmother and is dependent on crutches. How she lost her leg is never explained – it just is. The girl is a winner, resilient, resourceful, optimistic in the face of her challenges, and with the most captivating smile, her tongue just sticking out a little between her teeth. If you ever wanted to communicate the life of street kids, with understanding but without ever patronising them, this is the way.
Because most of the strand devoted to Youssef Chahine was scheduled against the African Cinemalibero strand I did not see as many as I would have liked. Between 1950 and 2007 Chahine (who died in 2008) made 42 films, of which only very few are shorts (such as his contribution to 11’9”01 in 2002). His early work was solidly within the traditions of Egyptian popular cinema, mass entertainments with melodrama and romance at the fore.
Seraa fi al-wadi (Struggle in the Valley, 1954) has a classic landlord villain squeezing the poor peasants. But we also have a handsome hero to stand up to him – and win the villainous capitalist’s daughter at the same time. Chahine had a real talent for storytelling, with sweeping landscapes and dramatic black-and-white photography capitalising on the bright Egyptian light. Any frame of this film would look stunning on a wall. But through the potboiler story, a more complex set of ideas and opinions aspires to burst through. Chahine uses every opportunity to make clear that his story is also an example of capitalistic exploitation and greed. True virtue and right lies with the ordinary folk of the village. The Temple of Karnak is the site for the stunning climax. And in the lead, in his first role, is the unbelievably handsome young man, born Michel Chalhoub. Chahine, who discovered him in an Alexandrian street, gave him a new name, Omar Cherif. He soon became known outside Egypt as Omar Sharif.
If in this film Chahine was trying to smuggle social and political commentary into a piece of routine commercial filmmaking, in Bab al-hadid (Central Station, Egypt 1958) he brought these elements strongly to the fore. Italian neo-realism is a strong influence on this picture of life in Cairo’s Central Station, and its porters, newspaper sellers, girls illegally selling cold drinks. Chahine himself plays a simple-minded newspaper vendor obsessed with one of these girls. She is however the girlfriend of a man trying to organise the porters into a union. Through this character, as well as all the other roles, Chahine injects a strong social commentary into his film. With a compact running time of 75 minutes, a rich array of characters and the dramatic exploitation of a limited, not necessarily picturesque setting Central Station shows a director at the height of his powers
Chahine’s subsequent career included personal films and sprawling historical epics. Either way, his cinema always evinced an overwhelming commitment to Egypt, its history, its culture, its people. Al Nasser Salah Ad-din (Saladin, 1963) is the proverbial “epic with a cast of thousands” (literally, not CGI), colourful costumes and exotic locations. It is the story of how Saladin repelled the Christian Crusaders in the second and third crusades of the twelfth century. Here, for once, the story is told from the Muslim side, where the baddies are crusaders like Richard the Lionheart. Chahine marshals his vast resources effectively, and keeps the story moving along at an entertaining pace, but ultimately the film doesn’t really engage. The characters are generally too shallow – ultra bad Crusader villains, ultra good Muslims, scenes too obviously planted with dialogue that makes his nationalist points very blunt. (Even the “Nasser” in the title is a pointer – or sop – to Egypt’s then ruler. But Chahine did get Government cooperation in making the film.)
There were later more personal films, including a series of autobiographical features that started with Iskanderija…lih? (Alexandria…Why?, 1978). This film introduced Chahine to the non-Arab world, and marked his ever increasing presence in International film festivals, including Berlin, where Alexandria…Why? won the Silver Bear. There are many pleasures to be explored in the works of Chahine.
Cinema Ritrovato each year highlights an American director whose career generally covered both the silent and the talkie eras. This year’s spotlight fell on Henry King. I saw some enjoyable films, but there is also a sense that this strand is now scraping the bottom of the barrel, and needs a rethink. The films were generally solid, and enjoyable, very professional and technically sound. But was King really a creator, an artist, in the way we think of an “auteur”, or was he just a very good director of the traffic? Even Andrew Sarris didn’t really know how to place him in his famed taxonomy of Hollywood auteurs, putting him into his category “Subjects For Further Research”.
In State Fair (1933) a farming family attends the State Fair, with the father exhibiting their prize pig and the mother, their pickles And there are the two children who just may find romance at the fair. It’s a top 20th Century Fox cast – Will Rogers, Lew Ayres, and Janet Gaynor in particular. It deals up a solid dose of Americana, but you’re all the time thinking what another Fox contract-director of the time, John Ford, might have done with it.
Equally professional were Twelve O’Clock High (1949) and The Gunfighter (1950), both with Gregory Peck. One is the story of a general called upon to re-inspire a squadron of American pilots during the war in Europe, just several years previous at the time of its production. In the other film Peck is a famous (or notorious) gunfighter who knows he will always be the target of trigger-happy kids wanting to claim the title of the man who gunned down Johnny Ringo. Seeing the two films side by side, there was an interesting emphasis on the burden and cost of doing a job dispassionately and professionally. But is this a sign of King as auteur, or evidence of the material that came out of Daryll Zanuck’s script-writing offices? Certainly, as Sarris said, a subject for further research.2
If Twelve O’Clock High indicated a victorious country reflecting on some of the personal costs of winning World War II, another programming stream, “We Are the Natives of Trizonia”: Inventing West German Cinema, 1945-49, showed how a losing country handled being defeated. Germany’s loser status was rubbed in by the breaking up of the country into separate sectors, then consolidated into East and West Germany. The films shown in this program curated by Olaf Möller were a mixture of acceptance and denial, of experimentation and conformity in film structures.
Life in Germany in this period was dire. Cities had been bombed, thousands killed, both in the cities and at the Front. This devastation was documented in the opening program of two film montages from 1944 ([Köln nach einem Bombenangriff 1944], [Berlin nach einem Bombenangriff 1944] and a short from 1949 (Asylrecht, made by Rudolf Werner Kip). The two montages document the damage and destruction in Cologne and Berlin, with shots of nuns wandering in the rubble, chalk scribbles on walls, dead and starving animals in a bombed zoo. Asylrecht documented the difficulties facing displaced Germans, now refugees, as they try to move into one of the different zones in Germany, for example, from the Soviet Zone into the British Zone. There is no special pleading for them, their situation is presented objectively. But as we watch it today in our mind we have thoughts of what led to them becoming refugees in the first place.
These thoughts are even more present in In jenen Tagen (Seven Journeys, d. Helmut Käutner, 1947). Our link from 1933 to 1945 is a car. Over the years its owners change and the car is there with its different owners at some specific and significant moments in German history, from the burning of the Reichstag, and Kristallnacht, through to the end of the war. It’s a clever structure in which to address “collective guilt”, as one critic said. But does it really?
Rather, it seems a way of actually avoiding facing up to this collective guilt. It does acknowledge Kristallnacht, but the reality has been cleaned up. Jews are never identified as such, there are no Stars of David on shop windows, just the owners’ names in clear white lettering. Although some characters (presumably Jews) are seen as having to leave the country, there is no mention of concentration camps. History is happening – but the protagonists are “other people”, and they did inconvenience us, didn’t they? In one episode the car and its occupants are prevented from getting to the opera (!) because of a Nazi street march. No representation of who was marching, or who was standing on the kerbs cheering on the marchers.
Technically, it is a very proficient film. Käutner creates rounded events and characters effortlessly as he moves from one separate story to another. It was clearly a film that the defeated Germans needed in 1947, but today it is very hard to overlook its special pleadings.
But it was clearly an enormous challenge to make films for a defeated and dispirited nation. Film ohne Titel (Film Without a Title, Rudolf Jugert, 1948) faces this difficulty up front. At the start we meet a group of people discussing what kind of film they can make for today’s Germany. This approach makes it easy to raise many issues about the immediate post-war Germany, but then it rather dodges them. The framing device ushers in the story of a big antique dealer in Berlin at the end of the war, whose family was acting as though there was no war going on. After the war, he finds true love (and a new sense of social reality) with a farm girl, as well a new vocation making useful furniture as needed in the new world, rather than recycling antiques.
Der große Mandarin (The Great Mandarin, Karl Heinz Stroux, 1949) was a rather confused film trying to be postmodern, breaking the barrier between the screen and the audience (as happens in Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Junior  or Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo ). In it, the film’s cast appeals to the audience because they don’t have the financing to make their film. So, for example, their political allegory/satire set in Chinesia (sic) makes do with pigtails as the only costume props. It does make some political points, but the comedy is heavy handed, bland, and unfunny.
Cinema Ritrovato again featured more films than any one person could absorb in a week. A poster girl for the Festival was Musidora, known mainly today for her black leotard clad image from Feuillade’s Les Vampires (1915-16). Soleil et ombre (Musidora and Jacques Lasseyne, 1922) was given a special carbon arc screening in the Cineteca’s open air Piazzetta. A toreador is entangled with both his Spanish fiancée and a blonde adventuress newly arrived in town. As well as sharing the director’s role, Musidora played both women, much more effectively as the dark Spanish woman than as the blonde with the tizzy curls. A bit of fun, but a sense that we’ve seen this all before.
Jean Gabin was the main poster image for the Festival, in a romantic portrait with Marlene Dietrich, his one-time lover and co-star, though the wonderful image did not come from anything shown in Bologna in its selection of nine films from his long career. Gabin is still well known today for a number of great films, but the program largely avoided these, showing there is still a wealth of treasure to be mined from his career. La Marie du Port (Marie of the Port, 1949) reunited him with Marcel Carné ten years after Le jour se lève. It does not have the darkness of the prewar film, and even succumbs to a happy ending. But perhaps it is thanks to the mark of an older Gabin, more resigned to what life brings. It gives him the ability to roll along with events now, without jealousy, or passion.
Cinema Ritrovato also selects from recent restorations from archives and laboratories around the world. Some of these are treasures, and their return to circulation is heartily welcomed. (Though I don’t know why screen time needed to be given to Apocalypse Now: Final Cut [Francis Ford Coppola, 1979 / 2019] only weeks before a worldwide release. However, it was rapturously rewarded with a crowd of probably several thousand in the Piazza Maggiore, and two overflow cinemas. This no doubt was boosted by Coppola introducing the film in person.)
Two great masters were represented by restorations of very early and largely unseen films. Abbas Kiarostami made Ghazieh-e Shekl-e Avval, Ghazieh-E Shekl-e Dovvom (First Case, Second Case, 1979) during the turbulent years of the Iranian revolution and before he made the features that brought him to the attention of the West. A pseudo-documentary, we observe a teacher writing on the blackboard who is distracted by someone making a noise. Unable to identify the culprit, he sends a group of seven boys out to the corridor, to stay there until the offender owns up or is identified. After establishing the situation, the film breaks into the narrative. A range of people are interviewed for their comments on what the boys should do. Should they stand by their mates and be quiet? Or should someone tell the teacher who it was? The interviewees include real religious leaders (both Islamic and a head in the local Jewish community), the new education minister, and members of a range of political parties. The film’s style is very basic, but that is as it should be, throwing attention on the ideas being discussed. This questioning of the nature of authority and our relationship to it was apparently too much for the new Islamic republic and the film was banned almost immediately on its premiere. But its timelessness was seen in Victoria, Australia recently when the issue became news with a teacher collectively punishing a whole class when the trouble maker was not identified.3
Manoel de Oliveira had a rich career, but it hardly started until he was already in his fifties. When he died aged 106 in 2015 he was still making shorts, and he had made his last feature (Gebo and the Shadow / Gebo et l’ombre) only three years earlier. He was already 50 when the commission came along for O Pão (Bread, 1959-63). He had only had the chance to make one feature film back in 1942, Aniki Bóbó. “I was hungry for cinema when I did O Pão,” he said.
His brief seems to have been to make a film about bread and the flour industry, but his commissioners were not pleased with the nearly hour-long result. There was no explanatory commentary, nor executives or politicians appearing on camera. It even starts obliquely, with a wedding of a young couple. But they reappear later, as farmers growing a wheat crop, and they close the film with the harvest. In between, we have seen so much about what is involved in coming up with a simple loaf of bread, a wedding cake, or a wafer for a Communion Mass. One fascinating sequence is in a laboratory. In the absence of any explanation on the soundtrack, we assume this is the process of maintaining quality control, and assessing the various qualities of different crops. Which one will be good for bread? Or pasta? Or cakes? So, the businessmen who commissioned the film may have been unhappy – but the film has outlasted them. For an hour, it is a simple and unadorned film, taking an ordinary everyday commodity, celebrating it and exploring so many things about it that we didn’t know.
Cinema Ritrovato is often the starting point marking the rebirth for many important films from cinema’s past. Let’s hope that this screening of O Pão is the start of its new life.
Il Cinema Ritrovato
22-30 June, 2019
Festival website: https://festival.ilcinemaritrovato.it/en/
- For an interesting response to the film, read Antti Alanen’s thoughts on his blog: https://anttialanenfilmdiary.blogspot.com/2019/06/les-bicot-negres-vos-voisins-arabs-and.html?fbclid=IwAR0QPnbU4VNr-5pGclfjTz8YQ_GYZRbOvSaPW5DF4pvOjeNF7rc4bvYdTMo. ↩
- A starting point is this article by the late Peter von Bagh, Finnish historian and director, and leading light of Cinema Ritrovato for many years. Peter von Bagh, “Henry King: Beyond the American Dream”, MUBI Notebook, 17 June 2019. ↩
- https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/the-push-to-ban-unfair-group-punishment-in-schools-20190710-p525xk.html ↩