When I wrote last year on Cinema Ritrovato that “it is by no means certain that we will have reached ‘post-COVID’ any time soon”, did I really have any inkling that we would all be in lock-downs for most of the first half of 2021? It’s worth marking down a little of this ebb and flow for future readers – I’m already finding it hard to reconstruct exactly what was our outlook at different stages.
Traditionally, Cinema Ritrovato has run in late June. Last year, they found a window in August when at least the closer European neighbours could come. This year they went for a slot in late July – quite a bold choice, when relatively few younger people had yet been double-vaccinated and many travel restrictions were still in place. So, again, only Schengen-area cinephiles were there in any number. Those that came from further were generally inhibited by the required periods of self-isolation, flight cancellations and uncertainty. But there seemed no shortage of people, and it was worth it.
The venues, and certainly the cineteca cafe seemed livelier than last year, but there was still assigned chequerboard seating in the cinemas. There were some replacements to the theatres used due to their availability. In a city I thought I knew a bit, I was pleasantly surprised to find again that there were yet more historic theatres that could be put to the service of the festival. This year’s debutante appearance of a recovered venue was of the Arena del Sole. Its restoration apparently happened a few years ago, the built structure dates from around 1880 to the same arena/opera house plan as the two historic theatres employed last year, but the main seating is slightly raked and the theatre has a pleasant attached concourse. It was only kitted out for DCPs, requiring some rearrangement of strands amongst the dedicated cinemas.
As far as I could tell, the online festival had a somewhat wider offering this year, although I was engaged full-time in the usual hopping between venues from 9am until midnight. As usual, there was at least one other full festival I could have chosen from the schedule. And that was with hardly visiting the discussions in the ‘DAMSlab’, which were also streamed live. They were recorded and became available online again after the festival.
As well as improving the online presence, the strengthening of the offering of discussions might have been an opportunity to streamline the screening introductions that mostly repeat the catalogue. If that were the intention in spirit, those that that were championing a particular film and had battled all restrictions to get here could be reluctant not to give account, and timekeeping lapsed somewhat this year.
The ticketing had matured since its inception last year and was less stressful. Perhaps because I had made my bookings in running order after I had fixed my timetable, the next ticket was easy to find on my phone, and staff now had access to a nice system whereby, as they scanned your ticket, they could tell you your seat number which you had chosen a week or two before. But there was another way of doing it, which was ‘last minute’. Since there were relatively few films with only one screening, sell-outs were infrequent. ‘Last minute’ seats were still assigned for potential contact-tracing. But this did all mean that, if you hadn’t arrived by a few minutes beforehand, your booking was scrubbed to accommodate the queue. Hence my fretting when introductions to earlier films had over-extended. Added to that was the threat that, if you were scrubbed three times, you would lose all your advance bookings. But even this could be solved by the simpatiche staff members: If I lent them my pass they could check me in to the next film across the corridor and keep my seat electronically warm.
We also learnt after a while that, in the Piazza in the evening, when the guillotine came down 30 minutes before proceedings even started, that we got better seats if we went ‘last minute’.
So, enough of this year’s almanac of navigating COVID – the risks were about getting there, not from COVID itself, when a festival is well managed. I really enjoyed many films and I will have to be selective and partial.
The strand I particularly looked forward to each day was that of Aldo Fabrizi. His large presence was always on screen, he wrote many of the scripts and sometimes also had the director’s role. The appeal of the films was the superb ensemble acting and I felt that Fabrizi was the director of acting in many more. Day 1 had a short, Documentario di propaganda n.3’ of 1940, obligatory for me with its anti-British satire, followed by Avanti c’e Posto by Mario Bonnard of 1942, so different form the Bonnard films I knew that I could easily be persuaded that the author of the film was that of the large presence who fills the screen. Fabrizi plays a tram conductor, often heard calling out the film’s title in his thick Roman accent – “There’s room up front”. As with many of the films, the medium is comedy with excellent character actors, but a well-constructed story develops around sympathetic characters I could easily love. And the timing of the ensemble acting was perfect. Surprisingly, this was Fabrizi’s feature film debut, his reputation having been built as a stage performer.
There were too many unseen films on offer to look again at Rome, Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945), where he played the priest, seeing instead his range in an action movie and a period Pirandello setting. He also wrote, directed and starred in the largely Argentina-shot 1948 straight drama Emigrantes. But it was the comedy-dramas, which kept me coming back. In Vita da Cani (A Dog’s Life, 1950, Mario Monicelli), Fabrizi, one of the film’s many writers, has himself as the director of a travelling theatrical troupe. This afforded wonderful variation in pace between the antics of the troupe on and off stage, and a sharper drama reaching beyond it. Only five years before, the politics of Italy had been effectively a civil war, and Fabrizi could garner comedy even out of that, as he misreads the alignment of a visited town. I preferred the political undercurrent in Vita da Cani to his 1947 script for Vivere in Pace (To Live in Peace, 1947, Luigi Zampa), but then who had by then got comedy and compassion out of war and occupation? Even a cardinal gets lampooned in the superb Prima Comunione (Alessandro Blasetti), also 1950, by the deft device of making him a thought-experiment of Fabrizi.
Arguably, however, Fabrizi’s masterpiece is Guardie e Ladri (Cops and Robbers) of 1950, directed again by Mario Monicelli. In this we got to see one of his screen pairings with Totò, who was building a reputation as a straight actor but was surely made to pair with Fabrizi. A beautifully parsimonious set-up in the Forum aims low at various Roman stereotypes and a very slow and hilarious chase follows across the breadth of Rome and beyond. Before I had noticed it, a tender, humane drama is developed with the families of cop and robber, employing the rich ensemble acting which Fabrizi always managed to find.
Clearly, after the stressful uncertainties of COVID travel, I was in need of comedy this year. But comedy resists travelling and special mention must be given to the translators of roman dialect which my ferrarese friend said was ‘untranslatable’. I cannot mention the uncredited, so will just thank the translator of the thickly Roman La Famiglia Passaguai (Fabrizi, 1951), which Rosanna del Buono rendered as ‘The Hapless Family’.
The other hall in the cineteca competed with a retrospective of the German director, Wolfgang Staudte. I had previously only known his 1945 Die Mörder sind unter uns / The Murderers Are Among Us, but Olaf Möller brought us an informative selection of this versatile director who worked for all the German regimes. The one that has stuck with me the most is his haunting 1978 Zwischengleis, literally ‘Between the tracks’ (Yesterday’s Tomorrow). It has a complex, dark but vivid story which circles back to memories of the post-war.
Film restoration seems to have been an activity that could continue productively in the pandemic, and in the ‘Ritrovati e Restaurati’ strand were plenty of treasures, some of which seemed made for double bills. Joseph Losey’s The Servant, 1963 came on a beautifully restored DCP – increasingly necessary to give old classics a new life in cinemas. It certainly showed the conspicuously minded photography to full advantage. Although this era is the foreign country from which I came, I was sometimes grateful for the Italian subtitles to clue me into understanding James Fox’s cut-glass accent. Harold Pinter’s script eventually targets all his characters mercilessly, but it is overwhelmingly Bogarde’s film in the eponymous role.
Servant made an interesting contrast with another beautifully restored film. I gave some space last year to the Yūzō Kawashima strand, and there were two more restored this year from his Daiei studio period. His Elegant Beast (1962) was familiar but Gan no tera / Temple of Wild Geese, 1962, breathed the same rare and stratified air as The Servant, in which the mechanics of class distinction have been preserved intact but beyond useful purpose. Like Servant, it’s in stylish black and white, but has a scope frame, which Kawashima and his photographer, Hiroshi Murai, use with controlled eccentricity to great effect. Kawashima rarely falls back on counter-shots but both cesspit and the grave return our gaze. Like Servant it also makes charged use of smell. Ayako Wakao’s voice is never more refined than when she opens the film with, “What’s that smell?”
It was Japanese films on which I had justified my uncertain quest to Bologna. The strand that Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström curated this year switched to documentary films to represent a few of the very many films produced by Iwanami Productions, an offshoot in 1950 from a renowned publishing company. Iwanami’s commercial and technical films, which number in the hundreds, were and are of high quality and often innovative, but Nordström and Jacoby brought examples, all from the late ‘50s, from directors whose reputation reached beyond the PR film.
There were seven films in all, in three groups, each shown twice to full houses. Two of the directors are better known in the west these days for their later fiction output, even though Susumu Hani’s early documentaries, (but hardly his name) got some airing on British TV at the time. His wonderfully observed Children in the Classroom (1954) and Children Who Draw (1956) bear repeated viewing in their natural depiction of young children’s behaviour and their subtle message to teachers to embrace the individual in children’s learning, a view all the more powerful for its setting in very different living standards of the post-war.
Although of similar length, at 23 minutes, Hani’s other film, Hōryū-ji (1958), could hardly have looked more different. Horyu is one of Japan’s most famous and ancient temples, filmed here in colour to stunning effect. After placing the temple just outside Nara, we are taken ever closer via a performed ritual. As Jacoby and Nordström state in the festival catalogue, “In a sequence of inventive compositions, Hani records the striking features, variously placid, impassive and anguished, of the Buddhist statues themselves”. The score by Yashirō Akio is indeed haunting and sympathetic but the commentary we heard on this English version of the Japan Foundation belonged to a voice very familiar to me from my 1950s foreign country, surely Mortimer Wheeler.
Although not given on Iwanami’s characteristically brief credits, Sumiko Haneda was known to have acted as assistant director on Children in the Classroom. I wonder whether she had input into Hōryū-ji, as her own film of the same year, Kodai no bi (Beauty of the Ancients), exploring artefacts from Japan’s pre-history, had a stylistic congruence, despite this being in black and white. In both films, the superb lighting brings out detail and character in a richer way than even a first-hand viewing can reveal. And, as Jacoby says in the online discussion, the lighting effects of Kodai no bi form the background of her film. I do feel, however, that a curation, or a commentary such as this, needs to distance itself from the commentary commissioned by the National Museum, who had contributed many of the artefacts. The concept that Jōmon pottery was made by the founders of the Japanese nation was politically charged, and varied from the available evidence even then. Today, with the hindsight of archeogenetics, it is unsustainable.
Haneda, who, like Hani, is still with us today, produced a wealth of films for Iwanami on required subjects, before eventually going independent. I have seen a far better digital copy of School for Village Women (1957), than the print shown here and, unlike many in the audience, did not warm to it. The film that Haneda writes of, that she wanted to make, more in the natural style of the film to which she contributed, Children in the Classroom, would have made interesting viewing but she clearly met stronger resistant forces than Hani. I do hope we see more of her excellent work in future years.
Likewise, I was less enamoured of Kazuo Kuroki’s Kaiheki (Sea Wall, 1959) than others around me. The introduction told us this was a Tepco documentary on building a power station on reclaimed land. My problem may lie in my science background and how Tepco have raised the ante in the meantime. I wanted to know how early Tepco had got into the disastrous and fatal habit of putting their emergency generators in floodable basements. But neither this, nor any other aspect of the design or construction method was gleanable from Kuroki’s film. A far more favourable account can be got from the online discussion.
A season I am unable to give enough space to focused on Indian Parallel Cinema of the ‘70s and ‘80s, a movement of independent filmmakers who often worked in minority languages. A number of these film had circulation in the west at the time but they are worth a more substantial write-up than I can include in this survey. I found Girish Kasaravalli’s 1977 Ghatashraddha devastating. The programme translation was ‘The Ritual’ but it was subtitled ‘Excommunication’. The award at the time went deservedly to boy-actor Ajith Kumar, but it is the character played by the actress Meena Kutuppa who suffers the brutal ritual. Set in an isolated Brahmin village, it was hard to pin down the time we were in, but clues eventually told me in was early 20th century.
The online discussion for this strand centres on another fine and much lighter film in the strand, Kumatty/ The Boogeyman, 1979 by Govindan Aravindan.
Cinema Ritrovato also turns up films that fit no theme, other than they have been recovered. Les Oliviers de la Justice / The Olive Trees of Justice, 1961, was made by the American director James Blue but was apparently the only French-language film shot during the Algerian war. But it is a lot more than a curiosity. It portrays an episode of decolonisation in an honest way from the viewpoints of characters whose lives and memories were Algerian.
I did not have the time I would have liked for silent film this year, but I was particularly entertained by the accompaniment to Karel Anton’s Cikáni / Gypsies, 1921 by the Bolognese violinist, Silvia Mandolini, playing extemporare to the sketches of Gabriel Thibaudeau, who ably assisted.
On the last day of the festival there were two Italian films of exploration in the ‘Restored’ strand. In a morning silent set we saw the 1926 documentary Norge, by Otello Martelli, celebrating the first flight over the North Pole by Umberto Nobile. Due to the weight problems of early flight, it had little of the airship journey, but more on the preparation and a reception back in Italy by Mussolini. We were reminded in the introduction of later films, seen here in a prior year, of Nobile’s Soviet rescue from a later disaster.
So, just as we had begun the festival with a sympathetic paean to Bolognese singer Lucio Dalla, we ended, in grand form, at the Piazza, after an eloquent benediction from Isabelle Huppert, with a specially edited version of Italia K2 (Marcello Baldi, 1955). This documented the successful Italian ascent in 1954 of the world’s second highest mountain. The edit for the festival, by Andrea Meneghelli, concentrated on the photography of Bolognese, Mario Fantin, and was accompanied by a full live orchestra, which was a considerable treat for us, still negotiating the pandemic. The original music of the film by Teo Usuelli was adapted by Daniele Furlati and performed with great verve by the chorus and orchestra of the Teatro Communale, conducted by Timothy Brock. It made a moving accompaniment to the breathtaking colour photography and achievement.
Il Cinema Ritrovato
20 July 2021 – 27 July 2021