Bologna in 2020 was destined to be different, with COVID-19 still lapping around. Frankly, when I saw the postponement announcement, that was the last I expected to hear of the festival this year, receding into a passed world, like so many other events. Cinema Ritrovato is my favourite festival – a week saturated with films from all of cinema’s history. In an amenable and historic city, I would find a path through the week, knowing I could not see half the offering.
With few of the films digitised, a remote relay of all those strands would never work. So, it seemed quite a miracle when it was revived to run in late August (rather than late June). It was to the physical festival in Bologna that I went to, although there was a reduced remote offering.
As there are yet few examples worldwide of “during-COVID” festivals, I am going to take space to look at the functioning of the festival itself. Hopefully, this should be because it will prove a single moment of history that needs recording. But it is by no means certain that we will have reached “post-COVID” any time soon and we have to learn and develop the new normal.
In summary, the festival worked, and I enjoyed myself more than I could hope. The range of choice in 2020 was, if anything, even larger, so the festival actually seemed bigger even though the number of attendees was at least halved. And a functioning, contact-traceable online booking system was conjured up from scratch. But I need to track back and record the conditions the festival faced.
Italy in August 2020 had banned travellers from the US and a number of other countries. This had a direct effect on many potential guests, curators and musicians. The UK required quarantine for any travellers through France, effectively quashing more strictly ethical travellers amongst my countrymen. Besides the regulatory constraints, there were real health concerns, chiefly for those medically vulnerable. As a result, most attendees in 2020 were from Europe and the majority of those came from the Schengen common travel area.
We had been told in advance about social distancing, that mask-wearing would be mandatory and that all cinema places had to be pre-booked a week in advance (in a festival that previously had never any reservations).
In the event, the pre-booking was just three days ahead; and a way was found to do “last minute” entry through electronic registration of passes and then being conducted to a designated area. The online booking could definitely be streamlined for any future use. Because additional, “new” cinemas were enlisted, few screenings were sold out in advance and so “last-minute” was generally available. That practically enabled a way of seeing the films without a smartphone. I only saw one person negotiate the festival phoneless – and he had access to a printer and a friend with a smartphone. There was some hassle in conjuring up the right QR code from all the similar-looking emails, sometimes with a fragile internet connection. I think I should also mention that, alas, “les anglo-saxons” next year will need an affordable roaming provision to navigate their QR codes.
I am pleased to say that mask-wearing was not an issue. People wore them inside at all times. Whereas in the city’s restaurants, staff would gently gesture you if you got up without remembering to put on a mask, this did not prove necessary in cinemas. In the outdoor Piazza Maggiore, mask-wearing was not obligatory and the officials’ only task was to prevent people converging across the vacant seats and on this point they were vigilant.
Your correspondent had intended to sample all the “new” cinemas but considerations of film choice trumped this plan. The usual cinemas were all in action, with most of the additional commercial ones projecting from DCP. The big exception was Teatro Communale di Bologna. A splendid 18th century structure, it was the very first municipal opera house. Cinema Ritrovato had used it before for special events but, this year, it became a constant venue for silent films. Another old theatre, Teatro Manzani, was put to use, particularly for the Venezia Classici.
As an experience, though, the festival felt remarkably similar, with the exception that time-keeping had necessarily improved. Just as in previous years, I should have arrived at least a day early to do some justice to the scholarship in the catalogue. Just as in previous years, I was still meeting friends on the last day, whom I hadn’t seen all week, because they were on different trajectories. It just felt a bit more hurried, rushing between more widespread venues and conjuring up the right QR codes. I felt noticeably more relaxed after I was done with pre-booking, and had only the present day to think about.
I am also pleased to say that, two weeks later, contact-tracing has not been activated for any of the 38 screenings I attended.
And now for the films! It is highly selective for reasons that I hope are already explained. But some more absences in this account result from my own selection criteria, which prioritise the unseen over the seen, the rare over those easily accessible elsewhere, and historical context over restoration. I’ll mention here that there were several presentations on acts of restoration, none of which I attended.
Already referred to, it was announced that the strand Venezia Classici would be moved to Bologna this year, as an example of inter-festival collaboration, and that it certainly was. This year the two festivals practically coincided. I’m not an habitué at the Venice Festival so have to guess why they wanted to relocate the Classics strand. Obviously distancing halves the capacity of their cinemas. But there must be many cities, including Venice, where old theatres could be redeployed, and facilitate a dissemination of film heritage, so did Bologna need more during their own festival? The British expression is “coals to Newcastle”. But I should not complain, it gave us 13 widely ranging films, including some previously unseen by me.
Curator Federico Gironi and his Venezia Classici team are to be commended for championing Hiroshi Inagaki’s Muhō Matsu no isshō (Rickshaw Man, 1943) over the one Venice historically awarded the Silver Bear, Inagaki’s later colour remake of 1958. Very little of Japan’s wartime output has ever been shown abroad and, despite this film’s fine reputation, its one British outing was in June 1978, with hardly more elsewhere. At that time, it was justly described as the finest of the wartime Meiji (19th century) films. As Jonathan Abel has observed,1 Rickshaw Man is significant in film history not only as the work of three preeminent masters of cinema (I would say four) – but for its double entanglement with censorship. Arguably, constraints of its production served to enhance it. Like most Japanese films of the period, the sound effects are minimal and an open-sky look to external scenes by photographer Kazuo Miyagawa give a slightly impressionist background on which fine naturalistic acting in the main parts brought character development into intense scrutiny. A more literal translation of the Japanese title is “Matsu the Untamed” and the untamed nature of Matsu’s original character is portrayed in this film by his picking fights with foreigners, whose roles in 1943 were taken by Japanese actors in a bearded dress-code similar to some other Japanese films of the period. It is analogous to more than a few western depictions of “orientals” and can be argued as an ethical choice when the alternative was using prisoners of war. The main arc of the plot is that chance events cause Matsu to become a sort of godfather for a boy after the widowing of his mother. My initial untutored reading changed after reading its censorship history. Matsu gains contentment and fulfilment in taking a parental role without ever, in the surviving acted scenes, wishing to engage with women. The epilogue, which rewrote his motivation in that respect, for me had less impact than the eloquent live action that had preceded it. In fact, the scriptwriter, Mansaku Itami, wrote that he conceived it as a love story, albeit unfulfilled, crossing class boundaries. It seems that the censors’ intrusive insistence in excising trace of their own cuts had a radical effect.
Itami’s own humanistic period films of the military era have previously featured at Cinema Ritrovato. Inagaki’s first three films were scripted by Itami and their paths were often linked. Itami was in failing health by 1943 but he was undoubtedly a principal author of this fine work.
Gironi is to be further thanked for scheduling the short documentary by Ema Ryan Yamazaki after (rather than before) the screening of the film. Although prompted by the film’s restoration, it gave much historical context, particularly in regard to Inagaki’s bruising battles with the censor.
Another film in the Venezia Classici strand was Utószezon (Late Season), a 1967 Hungarian film by Zoltán Fábri. I find it hard to imagine the source novel by György Rónay, as it felt much more like a filmed chamber play with a central mock trial. It addressed complicity in the Holocaust by middle class citizens of a small town. Its achievement divided some of the audience with doubts as to the appropriateness to the subject of comedy. But, although I have criticised elsewhere “the banality of evil into feel-good comedy”, this never asked for laughs and I consider it to have acquitted itself well. I saw no comedy and, because I believed in the characters I could suspend belief in the set-up and saw self-justifications of sordidly easy complicities laid bare.
Timetabling meant that I was unable to touch the strand on the Italian director, Marco Ferreri. Buster Keaton was present both in his own small strand and in the section for kids. I managed little more on a side-by-side exploration of the American directors Frank Tuttle and Stuart Heisler, only catching Heisler’s 1944 The Negro Soldier. Although this film also encountered the censor’s scissors, its major cutting down was driven by commercial considerations, reversed for our screening. In his introduction Festival co-director Ehsan Koshbakht talked of African-American film either being bluesy or churchy and this was entirely set in a church service with actuality inserts. Ehsan squared up to the difficulty the film faced – extolling the military service of African-Americans in an entirely segregated army. I thought, though, that the film was reasonably honest, clearly showing men being recruited together, and passing out as segregated. The whole tenor of the film was addressed to the mothers of Negro soldiers, reassuring them of their sons’ treatment. I suspect that the conflicted sensitivity of the subject had caused the film to be largely too late for its purpose. At a pilot screening in San Francisco, in the wake of a race riot, servicemen were apparently placed almost one-to-one with MPs, so the film had at least one integrated viewing. Besides the actors, several African-American writers were involved in the project without owning, or wishing to own, the finished product, including the composer William Grant Still.
Nor did I get to see the ubiquitous Henry Fonda, even though in the strand Henry Fonda for President I caught, again, one film. The Battle of Midway (1942) was narrated by Fonda and directed by John Ford. The restored documentary had vivid and fresh colours like no other actuality footage that I can think of. It presents a story of resistance at considerable cost against an enemy shown as aggressive and pitiless. Early Technicolor cameras being extremely cumbersome and heavy, the filming, apart from a couple of shots, was restricted to the air base from the ground.2 (Thanks, John, for those beautiful shots of Laysan Albatross.) It is reported that President Roosevelt himself insisted on the epilogue, done effectively with hand and paint-brush, reporting the Japanese losses, war-losing in magnitude, which happened far at sea, out of shot. I think I’m with censor Roosevelt on this one – if you call a film “The Battle of”, it ought to mention the main story.
It was particularly welcome to have a short retrospective of a director from “a country that no longer exists” – Konrad Wolf. I was much taken with his Ich war Neunzehn (I Was Nineteen, 1968) from the GDR. Highly autobiographical to Wolf’s history, although a script of Wolfgang Kohlhasse, it is a story of the experiences of a young exiled German serving in the Red Army when it was already on the territory of what was later to be East Germany. The protagonist might be returning to hear his mother tongue but finds it easier to trust the Russian-speaking occupiers around him. Although employing many of the required tropes and invisibilities of the contemporary war film, it allows you to get under the skin of, and reflect upon a young man suddenly given power and discretion over the defeated. Nor can I think of any better film about serving in the Red Army.
The section on the Swedish director Gösta Werner was slightly more extensive. Olaf Möller introduced the strand by suggesting his shorts were the best representatives of Werner’s work because they tended to develop single eccentricities of his own style. Perhaps so, but as a sucker for melodrama I enjoyed the noir film Gatan (The Street, 1949) more than I had been led to expect. The now-familiar story is of a young woman, descending through many young false steps. It had distinct gaps in the subtitles, which I took to be the curator’s choice to get us to look at visual style. But now I’m not so sure.
The strand that originally had me booking flights, hardly out of lockdown, was on the director, Yūzō Kawashima, taglined as the missing link between Japanese classical films and the new wave. Had he not died in his forties, we might well have grouped him as new wave. On offer were six films from the mid 1950s, of which only two had travelled much abroad. Although contemporary with the well-known Japanese classics, Kawashima’s style is messier,on its surface, controlled by well-conceived set-ups and excellent directing of actors often delivering quick-fire dialogue. That volume of dialogue might have been the bar to his being exported in the past, and it was not entirely overcome at Bologna. In practice, Tonkatsu taishō (Our Chief, Our Doctor, 1952) proved particularly palatable with legacy on-screen English subtitles necessarily edited down. On others, the four lines of English and Italian subtitles tended to pull me down too much, when most of what was interesting was happening on-screen. I wish they had been screened twice – something the audience size seemed to justify.
The other Kawashima film I particularly enjoyed was Ai no onimotsu (Burden of Love, 1955), a comedy with a superb cast. A government minister fronting a campaign on contraception finds his fecund family making the political into personal from every direction.
The Time Machine section this year concentrated on 1920 and 1900, under which an historic Paris show of “photography of movement” was recreated, nicely accompanied by Meg Morley. Of the three beautifully tinted 1920 films I saw in the Teatro Communale, one was given expression by harpist Eduardo Rayon, and two by well thought-out compilations from pianist Maud Nelissen with singers Wynander Zeevaarder and Willem Korteling. Although curator searches for the films directed by Dianne Karenne had not turned up any results, we saw her acting in Miss Dorothy, whose script by Riccardo Picozzi asks us at the end to root for an inbred marriage.
“Restored films” could be from any era. The lost original sound-on-discs of the Greek operetta of 1930, The Apaches of Athens, had been re-recorded to sympathetic effect (and resurfaces soon online from Pordenone). For Les Travailleurs de la mer (1918) by André Antoine, Stephen Horne had pre-recorded a fine accompaniment on his usual assemblage of instruments. If Matsu’s apparent non-interest in women (see above) was the artefact of Itami’s self-censorship, the same could not be said of this film’s protagonist. The original story by Victor Hugo has the protagonist shunned as a wizard. In Antoine’s film, the women flaunt themselves under his window whilst bathing, sure in the knowledge of their safety. So, I could only read the ending as despair of purpose, rather than romantic disappointment. Antoine’s contemporary, Germaine Dulac, maker of one of the 1920 films, La Belle dame sans merci, described bolt-on romantic endings as “small obligations imposed from a commercial standpoint”. Antoine’s film also has remarkable natural history shots for a film of its year.
There is not space to do justice to the section on Early Women Directors of the Soviet Union, even though it was my most faithfully attended strand. The stand-out film for me was Aleksandra Khokhlova’s Delo s Zastezhkami (The Affair of the Clasps, 1929). Gorky’s story from the 1890s was visually told with poignancy and clarity via the minimum of intertitles. It was her own script, and the photography of Michail Vladimirskii was still crisp. Another Khokhlova film in the same set, with different writers and photographer, seemed to be by a very different maker.
The strand Cinemalibrero can turn up all sorts of gems. La Muerte de un Burócrata (Death of a Bureaucrat), made in 1966 by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea in Cuba was a joy. Ruy Guerra’s Mueda, Memória e Massacre (Death, Memory and Massacre, 1979) documented the outdoor-theatrical presentation/commemoration of a violent pre-independence incident in Mozambique. Cinemalibrero this year was dedicated to the French director Sarah Maldoror, who died of COVID-19 in April – “a pioneer-warrior of Pan-African cinema”, as Festival co-director Cecilia Cenciarelli put it. Her three medium-length films were all engaging but anything but confined to Africa. Two were studies of leading figures of the négritude movement and both, like, Maldoror, poets. In Aimé Césaire – Le Masque des mots, the poet, although often slated as the inventor of the term, is seen placing himself as a non-member. The film, made in 1987, is built around a poem that sees a mask as conferring entrée and power. In Léon G. Damas, filmed in 1994 in Guyana, Damas’ poem, and Maldoror’s imagery weave their people’s heritage through landscape, idiom, and the Arianne rocket base. Successful integration of poetry with film is rare indeed but the session proved a valuable corrective to reading turgid subtitles. Sad to say, it was the only thinly attended screening I saw, with only 15 bodies in the late evening Arlecchino.
Better attended on another night was the debut screening of Shatranj-e Baad (Chess of the Wind, 1976) by another poet, Mohammad Reza Aslani. Ehsan Koshbakht, told the audience before the screening that its three initial press screenings in Tehran were comprehensively sabotaged and the film was thought lost except for a grainy VHS, until the print was discovered recently in a flea market. The restored sensational images by Houshang Baharlou are engrossing. The action seems to unfold in one place, a grand nineteenth century Tehran house, but over how long a time-span is obscured. Its contextual meaning is hard to localise in the mind on a first viewing, even with a little knowledge of Iranian modern history. It took repeated questions after the screening to begin to unpick it.
Elements not given justice in this report include the screenings in the immense Piazza Maggiore, which continued successfully each evening, often with live music. After one of these, with an accompanying band, Alice Rohrwacher gave us a reading, in italian, of the poem by Daniel Filipe, much revived in lock-down, A invenção do amor (The Invention of Love), followed by a long-buried, pre-Carnation filmic setting by Antonio Campo.
Like all festivals, Cinema Ritrovato likes to introduce films with the bodies of a name from the film. For historic films, talent availability can be a problem and I have to say that descendants and relatives have not often brought enlightenment. But one important set of names I have shamefully omitted is those of the translators. In fact, individual translator credits at Cinema Ritrovato are rare and usually unidentifiable to language. When a future scholar decries one of my judgements, that I did not watch the same film as her, she will probably be at least half right. Cinema Ritrovato is scrupulous in recording its restorations. I do hope it matches this in keeping its own archive of the translations screened.
But, to sum up, the festival’s broad achievement in scholarship, cinephilic judgement, musical performance, translation and organisation prevailed completely against the challenges of the pandemic in 2020.
Il Cinema Ritrovato
25–31 August, 2020
Festival website: https://festival.ilcinemaritrovato.it/en/
- Jonathan E. Abel, Redacted: The Archives of Censorship in Transwar Japan, University of California Press, 2012, pp. 213-4. ↩
- I have discovered, October 2020, with the benefit of library reading, that these two true facts are not causally related. What we saw at Bologna was indeed the restoration of a Technicolor print, but William Murphy wrote that Ford filmed in 16mm Kodachrome and blew up the footage to Technicolor for release. See William T. Murphy, “The United States Government and the Use of Motion Pictures During World War II” in Abé Mark Nornes and Fukushima Yukio (eds.), Japan/America Film Wars: World War II Propaganda and Its Cultural Contexts, 1994, p. 61; and William T. Murphy, “John Ford and the Wartime Documentary”, Film and History vol. 6, no. 1, February 1976, pp.1-8. ↩