This midsummer, in the centre of Italy, I encountered an enviably rich film festival with more than 30 great historic films, all unseen by me. There were three by Jean Renoir, four by Michael Powell, two by Ernst Lubitsch, half-a-dozen by Rouben Mamoulian, mini-strands on German 1934-6 exile comedies, on the early work of the prolific cinematographer Elfi Mikesch, on Michael Roemer, and of the Austrian-Swiss filmmaker Leopold Lindtberg. Also included were Amok (Fëdor Ocep, 1934), Ishanou (Ariban Syam Sharma, 1990), a “holy grail” of Iranian New Wave, Gharibei va meh (Stranger and the Fog, Bahram Beyzaie, 1974), the first feature of Charles Chaplin, and gems by Frank Borzage, Howard Hawks, Pietro Germi, Roberto Rossellini, James Cruze and Zoltán Korda.

Some cineaste, in the five thousand purchasers of festival passes must have seen this particular quarter of Il Cinema Ritrovato and I urge them to pitch a report, as I’d love to hear about these films, still unseen. I shall give some account of my own quarter (the other two quarters, roughly, comprised films I’d seen; and left-behind films in strands I had at least dipped into, in my viewing of over fifty screening slots over ten days).

The festival had the biggest audience ever. The booking system developed under Covid was continued, without charging, but there were strains showing in this weightless system in such a frantically busy schedule. Passes were needed for any cinema entrance, so day-visitors from elsewhere in Emilia-Romagna (a constituency the festival should placate) were completely unable to access cinemas. I understand that festivals need donors who must have priority but the reserved blocks for the great and the good were patently excessive. Although there were frequent disappointments, in the smaller cinemas at the Cineteca, staff could just about manage the ‘last-minute’ queues. But, even here, the filling caused delays and stress in a very tight schedule. In the larger cinemas, although, as the website says, venues were “almost always sold out”, they were almost never full. Fifteen minutes was allotted, if they were on schedule, for filling the cinemas. First, 500 or more filed through, scanning their passes, but at ten minutes, might be told they were “late” and had lost their booking. Then, several hundred ‘last minute’ pass-holders might be let in. Then, one volunteer would go in and out into the meridian sun, allowing single entrants. Even for those fifty years younger than I, it takes time for eyes to adjust to find the empty seats and it can’t be done this way. Better to let, say, thirty in at a time and tell them they have to find a seat in one minute or leave. They – much more experienced cinema-goers than the volunteers – would have found them and seen the films they had come to see.

‘Victim of its own success’ might be a phrase coming to mind, so it’s time to examine some of the films that make this festival so successful.

Two major Italian strands had intersections. A screening of Luchino Visconti’s Bellissima (1951) on the Piazza Maggiore started with three brief tributes to Anna Magnani by Nan Goldin (the protagonist of the recent documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, also showing here), Caterina d’Amico and Silvia d’Amico. The authors of this film convey a Roman tale in two locations: a crowded, working-class apartment block, and at Cinecitta where a grasping mother (Magnani) competes with hundreds of other mothers to push her little daughter as the next ‘most beautiful’. If it were just up to Magnani, with her talent, enterprise, and tactics low and lower, the girl would win hands down but the film’s writers were far too smart to give us what we think we want. The child actor character of Maria (Tina Apicelli), and her director, also have their own complications.

The sisters d’Amico were here as daughters of one of the collaborating screenwriters, Suso Cecchi d’Amico who was the focus of a major strand on Italian post-war screenwriting. In screenings that followed during the week, Caterina d’Amico could take time in her introductions to give us a detailed account of fallings-out and collaborations by chance and design. I cannot think of a more informative set of film introductions, and they stand in complete contrast to some celebrity’s relatives introductions I’ve known in the past. Suso Cecchi d’Amico’s filmography is worth looking up just to see how many of the classic post-war Italian films she helped create. Here, after Caterina’s rich introductions, I could enjoy Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, Vittorio de Sica, 1948) completely afresh, as well as Bellissima, Processo alla Città (The City Stands Trial, Luigi Zampa, 1952), and the much later Speriamo che sia femmina (Let’s Hope It’s a Girl, Mario Monicelli, 1986). On this last one, I wasn’t so enamoured. I didn’t find the male characters well drawn – we can blame the other three male writers for that – and there was a grandfather with a silly version of memory loss, that was tastelessly comic and derogatory. Maybe this writer is showing his age in that view.

When I booked my flight tickets, the previous December, I scheduled a Friday morning arrival, to give myself a complete day to read the catalogue, still an unmatched resource of film scholarship. But screenings were already started, offering a little more bandwidth to unpick the many clashes. I was surprised that senior Festival Director, Gian Luca Farinelli was surprised to face a full house in the Cineteca for a couple of Italian films, usually out of reach. Banditi a Orgosolo (Bandits of Orgosolo, Vittorio de Seta, written and directed, 1961) was a tale of the desperate choices of villagers and shepherds in this mountain village of Sardinia, filmed on location on the hills. It started as if a documentary with a narrator telling us these villagers are ‘primitive souls who only know family bonds’, over images of a driven hunt but with very rough-hewn men behind the guns on the escarpment. We already get a strong sense of place and direction.

The protagonists are a youngish man and his younger brother, a boy more than ten years younger. The starting point is an intrusion into their range by two bandits who have stolen some pigs. The carabinieri come looking for them and our man will not tell them anything and gets implicated in the bandits’ killing of one carabiniere. These bandits escape without identification, so our man becomes the object of the chase – with beautiful photography, superb depiction of place and direction, and good characterization of two taciturn subjects. The film’s new restoration won it this place in the large ‘Recovered and Restored’ strand. I believe it had restored Sardinian dialect over the previously circulated dubbed version. 

We were told by Michelangelo Frammartino, maker of the next film in this strand, Il Dono, (The Gift, 2003) that in his case only the image has so far been restored but, in any case, there were only a few untranslated spoken words, that may have been in dialect. We are set in Calabria, on a hillside smallholding and a local village. Between punctuation shots of dumped vehicles in these hills, and dumped ships on the shore, we follow two characters running forlorn parallel lives, the holder of the smallholding and a young woman with an enslaving dependency on men’s bicycles.  Frammartino manages, with a patient gaze, and almost no dialogue, to show the compassion of one for the other, until we see ‘the gift’.


Even before these two films, Ehsan Khoshbakht, had opened a retrospective on Mamoulian by introducing the documentary, Rouben Mamoulian – Lost and Found (André S. Labarthe, 2016) – edited testimony of Mamoulian in Beverly Hills in 1965, speaking passable French fluently, presumably to prompted questions, but at length with few cuts. Mamoulian was lively and articulate, speaking of his early experiments with sound. It seems that one reason for Mamoulian’s eclipse later in the last century was the unavailability of these crucial sound films. So, it was an education to later catch his Applause (1929), which had anything but the static camera that was supposed to have been a requirement of the earliest sound films, as well as impressionistic overlaying of sound, albeit with limited technology. The meat of the film is backstage life in burlesque theatre from the turn of the 20th century.

Applause was preceded by the silent film, The Flute of Krishna (1926). This was a 7 minute, 2-colour filming of a performance by four superb female dancers with the male ‘flautist’, who was, by comparison, merely animated furniture. Its choreography was by Martha Graham, and our appreciation was greatly enhanced by an accompaniment by Stephen Horne on flute.

We Live Again (1934) was Mamoulian’s rendition of Tolstoy’s Resurrection, with scriptwriting by Maxwell Anderson, Leonard Praskins, Preston Sturges and Thornton Wilder. But none of these heavyweights would have had a say in Mamoulian’s portrayal of an Easter mass for a good ten minutes and, I was told, sung in Old Church Slavonic. This was, bizarrely, all translated into Italian for us but not English nor, arguably more appropriately, Latin. Instead of Tolstoy’s critical stance on the Church, we had Mamoulian’s fond reminiscence. He had grown up in Tbilisi in the Armenian community during the Russian empire.

It seems We Live Again is not rated highly amongst Tolstoy scholars – it doesn’t even make the index of the book Tolstoy on Screen.1 That’s probably not due to the previous unavailability of Mamoulian 1930s prints, as this screening was not from a restoration but a 35mm print, increasingly rare, even in Bologna. But, allowing for then contemporary Hollywood romantic conventions, the film still had much going for it, and I found it effective and touching, with plenty of critique of class.

I also enjoyed Mamoulian’s classic swashbuckler, The Mark of Zorro (1940), set in Los Angeles, no less, albeit during the Spanish empire. But many readers will know their Mamoulian better than I, and I should move on. Those needing more should look at the festival catalogue (from the link below, take the tabs, ‘Programme’, then ‘Editions’). Ehsan Khoshbakht clearly identifies with an Armenian refugee embracing popular entertainment.

We Live Again was not the only depiction of Resurrection in the festival. Tolstoy’s work had been a staple of shinpa theatre in Japan before and after the turn of the 20th century, and shinpa, in turn, had been the default form of early Japanese narrative film, of which vanishingly low numbers have survived – none, I believe, of the various versions of Fukkatsu or ‘Kachūsha’. Satō also points out that Mizoguchi Kenji’s first film (Ai ni yomigaeru hi, Resurrection of Love, 1923) was considered to have drawn from thematic elements of Tolstoy’s Resurrection.2

Although none of these have come down to us, what we do have is two competing 1947 biopics on the shinpa actress, Matsui Sumako, who had had a passionate following in Japan. Mizoguchi’s film, Joyū Sumako no koi (The Love of Sumako, the Actress) is relatively well known but the competing Tōhō film, starring Yamada Isuzu, received higher ratings from critics of the time, which I knew only by reputation. That film, Joyū (Actress), scripted by Hisaita Eijirō was directed by Kinugasa Teinosuke, and we were able to see it, along some of his others, some well known, others hardly seen in the West, if at all.

Kinugasa’s better known films include Jūjiro (Crossroads, 1928), Yukinojō henge (An Actor’s Revenge, 1935) and Jigokumon (Gate of Hell, 1953), none of which I had time to see again, and Kurutta ichipeiji (A Page of Madness, 1926). The pulls to see A Page of Madness yet again were that it was a new (2021) print with tinted passages, that it was accompanied live on violin (Silvia Mandolini, with Gabriel Thibaudeau on keyboard, sensibly in the background), and that it was showing with an extra, the recently rediscovered 14-minute fragment of Kinugasa’s Oni-azami (‘Demon Thistle’, 1927).

The set was introduced by the familiar faces of Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström, with Tomita Mika from the NFAJ (National Film Archive of Japan) in Tokyo. Three people introducing two films in a tight timetable, both of which needed considerable context, only seems sane in the hothouse of Il Cinema Ritrovato. Alex got as far as saying that A Page of Madness would have had a benshi when originally exhibited, and that, without one, it was hard to understand, and then was obliged to hand over. But the cue was not taken up. I spoke to several people in Bologna later about the film, none of whom I had previously met (it’s easy and comfortable to do that in the atmosphere of this festival) and each admired and liked the film and each had constructed a different narrative, at variance from the literature.

It helped that the print was projected at the relatively sane speed of 18 frames per second (fps), so I was able to enjoy it at the slowest speed (79 minutes) since I originally saw it in Tokyo, at what was then called the NFC (National Film Centre). My feeling is that 18 fps would have been the absolute top speed at which it would have been projected – there seems no reason to suppose that it would have been hand-cranked at a constant speed. As far as I could see, the tinting was evident in two scenes.

Oni-azami was much more rewarding than I could have hoped. We saw it from a digital file (again at 18fps), restored from a nitrate positive print found in the ‘Jugoslavenska Kinoteka’ (Yugoslav Film Archive) in Belgrade. It was a crisp image almost unknown in surviving Japanese silent films, and showed the star Hasegawa Kazuo, then known under the stage name Hayashi Chōjirō, to great advantage. He was famous for his balletic prowess, especially in the obligatory sword-fights in the chanbara genre he then acted in. Here, we saw him in such a performance during the early blossoming of his career. Several Japanese silent films only survive as an offcut of the fight scene, but this was more than that, and surely was the complete final reel. No one had previously flagged up that Oni-azami had circulated at all in the West, and so its history needs unravelling.

The Battle of Kawanakajima

1941 in Japan can be quite productive for film historians. Period films didn’t have to reflect the fanaticism of the later war years. It was sufficient that they were ‘serious-minded’. Kawanakajima kassen (The Battle of Kawanakajima, Kinusaga Teinosuke, 1941) again needed more explanation than it got at Bologna, to even understand who won this historical (1561) battle but one can argue that was not the point. Kinugasa and his screenwriter, Muneta Hiroshi strove to convey the messiness and loss of war, albeit amongst magnificent scenery (Tōhoku, apparently, for the historical Nagano), with the main battle shot day-for-night. But the characters the script focuses on are in the baggage train and most of the film passes during their travails to bring up the supplies. The script even takes a shot at spy-mania, an obsession the authorities were currently encouraging. As in other war films made at this time, there was a need to show orders travelling from top to bottom. But I saw nothing but the fear of death in the closing shot of Hasegawa Kazuo. 

Actress, already mentioned, was a moving story of dedication, with its long takes reconstructing the stage performances of Resurrection and other shinpa.

Three other post-war Kinugasa films have had almost no exposure in the West. Daibutsu kaigen (Dedication of the Great Buddha, 1952), as many epics elsewhere in this period did, dropped the stars of its age into a pre-historic construction project, in this case, the making of the giant Buddha statue subsequently enshrined to this day in the Todai-ji temple of Nara. As we were told in the introduction, Kinugasa was then admired more for his visual compositions than his story, so here I will mention the A.D. Misumi Kenji, the director focussed on here last year. The ending doesn’t make sense, to anyone who knew anything about rōgata, or indeed, any other method of lost-wax sculpture.

Given Kinugasa’s accent towards style, it should not surprise that, when colour became available, he should look to the early twentieth-century novels of Izumi Kyōka to remake Shirasagi (The Egret, sometimes literally translated as White Heron, 1958). Kinugasa used his favourite actress, Yamamoto Fujiko in this “quiet world of interiors and repressed emotions”.3

The last film in this retrospective must have had more distribution in the West than I realized since it has three English titles: The Bronze Magician (1963) (here), The Priest and Empress and, closer to the original title of Yōsō, The Sorcerer. Again, it delved back into early history, this time with the story of the empress Kōken (718-770) who returned to the throne (historically with the name Shōtoku) after a ‘miracle’ cure from a monk, Dōkyō. The depictions of the courtiers’ political manoeuvrings had a realism about them, levels above comparable Hollywood epics of the time, which only made my suspension of disbelief in our bewitching monk and shallow empress harder. But then it was an achievement before its time to depict any emperor, which was, I thought, still taboo then. I guess for the true believers, female emperors can’t be real emperors, so it went under the radar. But, anyway, as the catalogue says, the crisp black-and-white photography was stylish.

The ‘Time Machine’ of the Festival was due to focus on the years 2003 and 2023.

Le Brasier ardent (The Burning Brazier, Ivan Mosjoukine, 1923) was a particularly interesting and attractive film. Émile Cauquy told us that Mozzhukin was “the greatest and most talented actor of Russian cinema” and he continued his acting career in France, as Mosjoukine, where he wrote and directed himself, only for the second and last time, in what one might call an experimental film.4 Jean Renoir testifies that it was seeing this film, even over the whistles and jeers, that persuaded him to plunge into the film world. It starts with an avant garde dream sequence, and I wasn’t able to keep count of how many roles Mosjoukine played but he later appears as the detective, commissioned by the husband, evidently to ‘understand’ his wife’s reluctance to leave Paris and its night-life.

It is very convoluted to explain but interest was raptly kept by the invention, the variable pace and the music by Maud Nelissen on piano, and Eduardo Raon, on harp and a bowed instrument, probably a violin, but I was too far away to be sure.

We learnt that the diva film, L’ombra (The Shadow, Mario Almirante, 1923) had come into the hands of Cinémathèque royale de Belgique, I think in the ‘90s, from a named individual whose father and grandfather were travelling fairground exhibitors. Reading my notes of the plot, which I will spare you, it sounds highly improbable (actually from the popular stage play of Dario Niccodemi). But, as David Bordwell has remarked “L’ombra avoids the long-shot choreography of only a few years before and builds a performance out of face, body, and arms in a close framing.”5 For me, Meg Morley’s accompaniment on piano was key to my appreciation here.

The other ‘Shadow’ film of 1923 was the ultra-expressionist Schatten by Arthur Robison, disambiguously rendered into English as Warning Shadows. Oliver Hanley writes in the catalogue that “The supernatural Kammerspiel film Schatten arguably represents the apotheosis of the shadow motif in German silent cinema; shadows serving here not only as a key stylistic device but as an intrinsic element of the narrative.” 

That had been preceded by the six-minute animated short, Yes, We Have No -! (Adrian Brunel, 1923), which was also accompanied by Neil Brand, very intelligently. It concerned a particularly sticky tune that deserved to die long before 1923, but it worked for me as a cure for hanging on for Parcelforce for 40 minutes, not long before. Readers will have their own bête noire but I can recommend a viewing after enduring any interminably repetitive jingle of 2023.

Another strand was ‘Powell before Pressburger’. Early on, Ian Christie was giving a presentation on UK ‘quota quickies’ which I thought would be a very niche subject purely for British film historians and that I ought to offer support. But the hall, ‘DAMSLab’ in the Cineteca, was packed. Since the BFI are running a full retrospective on Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in October and November, perhaps I need not take too much space here.

Dreams of the City

A film in the Cinemalibero strand with a lasting impact was Ahlam al-Medina (Dreams of the City, Muhammad Malas, 1984).6 It got some attention at the time at Cannes Critics’ Week but very little in the internet age. It is set in the 1950s in Damascus, ostensibly an autobiography of the fictional boy protagonist, Deeb, but clearly largely autobiographical of Malas himself and starts with a more allusive rendering of pigeons in a loft, apparently on the city wall, and a pan over some event-laden parts of the city. We are introduced to the young Deeb, consoling his mother on the bus, on which they, including his younger brother, have had to flee, for unexplained reasons after the death of Deeb’s father. Various episodes give us an intimate feel of life in this city against a backdrop of historic events of the region that I don’t recall ever having been able to feel from the inside before, all while conveying a life of an internal exile. We advance through a history of Damascus and Syria in the ‘50s. Deeb learns from his employer at the laundry and, on deliveries, with neighbours on the street. We witness him learning through child’s eyes. These eyes, however, cannot fathom how his mother is forced to remarry, leaving him. 

Deeb hears various rival political views as we hear of Nasser’s rise. The film culminates with the founding of the United Arab Republic as his mother returns home. But we are viewing this optimism through eyes of 1984 which know differently.

Layla wa zi’ab (Leila and the Wolves, Heiny Srour, 1980-84) was set in successive periods of the 20th century in Palestine under ‘mandate’ rule and after, giving a feminist perspective on its history, using a blend of historic newsreel footage with acted scenes. We start in early Mandate Palestine, showing women’s resistance to the British colonial rule, memorably by pouring boiling water over troops in narrow streets. A long scene depicts the smuggling of weapons to fighters in the hills, under the noses of British troops, using femininity and the troops’ cultural othering as ruse.

There is even some depiction of the Shoah, before showing landings by boat in Palestine. But this was just a prelude to showing the ensuing Naqbas, but from a woman’s perspective again. The story is framed at the end by a more impressionist scene of black-clad women in a semi-circle on the beach that is clearly symbolic but its distancing seemed to work against the heft of the film which was to pull our gaze close to women in person.

The films of Bahram Beyzaie have been championed previously here, and I was keen to finally see Cherike ye Tara (The Ballad of Tara, Bahram Beyzaie, 1979). Ehsan Khoshbakht told us that its post-production paused at the revolution, but was finished for Cannes in 1980, which remains its only official screening. Ehsan also referred us to the annual Ta’zieh “passion play” performances which appear in the film, and that Beyzaie was an admirer of Kurosawa. Nevertheless, here, a woman is foregrounded.

A striking woman arrives on a horse and cart with two young children. She is returning to her village after an absence, never explained, but presumably from a marriage to a man seemingly passed. Or perhaps she is returning to claim her deceased father’s effects. We are close to the Caspian shore. Before she even gets there, she glimpses a warrior from a distant historic period. As she asserts her ownership in the village, the glimpses of the ghost return. Eventually the ghost speaks and tells her his quest is the sword she has inherited. However, having received it, he renounces the sword and declares his love, yet departs, on horseback into the sea. There is then an extended scene of Tara, in red, discovering her sword skills in the waves. But, rather than terminally sink into them, as seems to be indicated for several minutes, she, as I saw it, came out of the waves and out of her trance, just as neighbours draw up with her children in the cart. Although my restorative reading is at odds with the catalogue, it still came over as a strikingly different and memorable film.

The ‘Cinemalibero’ strand included a sample of documentary films in a session entirely devoted to films produced by ‘Les Actualités Sénégalaises’. A 1976 newsreel reported on President Senghor’s visit to Guadeloupe and Martinique, from a Paris exhibition, and from the set of Ousmane Sembène’s Ceddo (1977, surprisingly, getting its first Il Cinema Ritrovato screening this year).

As these many strands unfolded, alongside others I could not cover, in a packed overlapping schedule, the largest section was ‘Recovered and Restored’, containing films coming from everywhere.

I had found before that a little Gavaldón went a long way and had actually skipped Macario (Roberto Gavaldón, 1960) at a retrospective elsewhere but I realized here that this had been my loss. It was inventive and utterly believable in its mythic conception.7

Aloïse (Liliane de Kermadec, 1975) took me to a subject and filmmaker I did not know in a beautiful film that made me want to know more. Written with André Téchiné, it told the life of Aloïse Corbaz who, even for the first 90 minutes of the film, I did not know to be “the outstanding Swiss exponent of art brut”. The opening quotation of Lulu, theatrical scenes, and the maturing Aloïse, played by Isabelle Huppert, training as a singer had led my expectations but suddenly in 1914 she is off to be the tutor to the children of the Kaiser’s chaplain in Potsdam. Abruptly expelled at the outbreak of war, we see one brief clip of her publicly remonstrating against war before, abruptly again, being confined to a mental institution. There she stays, seemingly in a vegetative state, for decades, as the mis-en-scène darkens and slows. The slow and tentative discovery of artistic expression is conveyed with great patience.

I was pleased to find, on the last, ‘bonus’ day, a film by an Italian director whose work I was not familiar with, Franco Rossi. His 1962 film, Smog was set entirely in the city of Los Angeles and managed to give me a feel for the city and its life that a thousand Hollywood films had passed over. A first-class traveller from Rome to Mexico has to lay over, takes a taxi into downtown Hollywood and makes the ‘mistake’ of getting out and walking. The characters he encounters, and their worlds, from low to very high, were thoroughly believable and engaging. A bright and intelligent Italian gaze on Hollywood made a good ending for a week at my favourite festival.

Il Cinema Ritrovato
24 June – 2 July 2023
Festival website: https://festival.ilcinemaritrovato.it/en/


  1. Tolstoy on Screen (edited by Lorna Fitzsimmons and Michael A. Denner, 2015)
  2. Satō Tadao, 1982/2008, Kenji Mizoguchi and the Art of Japanese Cinema, translated by Brij Tankha, Berg, 29-39.
  3. John Gillet, Il Cinema Ritrovato catalogue, 2023.
  4. Mosjoukine’s only other direction was reviewed from Pordenone in, Jay Weissberg, ‘Report on the 22nd Pordenone Silent Film Festival’, Senses of Cinema, Issue 29, December 2003. Before his exile, ‘Mozzhukin’ was credited at this festival in the Italian transcription of the Cyrillic, ‘Mozžuchin’.
  5. David Bordwell, ‘Paris-Berlin-Brussels express’, Observations on Film Art, January 2010.
  6. The catalogue renders the film ‘Alham’ which I can confidently reject, and the transcription of Malas’ given name as Muhammad, following Alkassim and Mandary, 2018. Wikipedia has ‘Mohammad’ and ‘Mohamed’. The Cinema of Muhammad Malas, Vision of a Syrian Auteur, Samirah Alkassim, Nezar Andary, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2018.
  7. For more on Macario and Roberto Gavaldón see, David Melville, ‘Gavaldón, Roberto’, Senses of Cinema, Issue 81, December 2016.

About The Author

Roger Macy contributes reviews to the Midnight Eye website as well as occasional Tokyo hearse-chasing for The Independent newspaper in London.

Related Posts