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Festivals: Il Cinema Ritrovato

By Genevieve Yue on July 19, 2013

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As its name suggests, Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna is a festival that returns forgotten cinematic gems to the light of projection. In little over a week, the festival showed an array of works spanning from 1904, with the cops-and-robbers chase antics of Cambrioleurs modernes ("Modern Burglars"), to 2013, with Remembrance–A Small Movie about Oulu in the 1950s, an autobiographical film made by festival programmer Peter von Bagh. Many of the films shown were the subject of recent preservation efforts, such as Hitchcock’s early silents (the largest restoration project ever undertaken by the British Film Institute) and the snowy 1957 Norwegian survival tale Ni Liv. But others were discoveries of lost or neglected films, whether showing in a worn and distorted 35mm print, like Urban Gad’s Engelein (1913), in which Asta Nielsen appears as wily as ever, or stunningly well-preserved, like the program of Pathé shorts from 1906 that were uncovered only a few years ago at a fairground.

Remembrance–A Small Movie about Oulu in the 1950s

The Pathé shorts, which included Cambrioleurs modernes, screened in the cobblestone courtyard of the Cineteca Bologna, the Piazzetta Pasolini. There, the blue smoke emanating from the carbon arc projector drew as much attention from the crowd as the brilliantly hand-tinted costumes of L’Obsession de l’or (1906). A few select features every evening were showcased on the giant outdoor screen in the Piazza Maggiore, a wide, portico-flanked square in the heart of the old city. Whenever possible, films were screened in their original 35-milimeter splendor, though the frailty of some prints underscored how much of film history is in such advanced states of decay, not just archival oddities but irrefutable classics.

La Pointe Courte Agnes Varda

La Pointe Courte

It’s difficult to imagine, for instance, that Agnès Varda’s La Pointe Courte (55), screened in DCP, hadn’t been restored until this year, or that there no longer exist negatives for the 35mm print of The Lodger (26), described by the director himself as “the first true ‘Hitchcock’ movie.” Even the more recent Bonjour Mr. Lewis (82), Robert Benayoun’s six-hour video exegesis on the comedy of Jerry Lewis, almost never screens, because of legal entanglements. At the very least Bologna is a reminder that much preservation, in an age of funding cuts to state archives and cinematheques, is the result of difficult, diligent, and too often unsung work. Though there was some grumbling that the festival, now in its 27th year, had grown too big—that the cinephiles’ secret was out—Il Cinema Ritrovato provided a rare opportunity to contemplate, in the warm glow of the carbon arc or in crisp DCP, the medium’s mutliple pasts, in an international film culture too often fixated on new releases.

Olympia 52 Chris Marker

Olympia 52

Many of Bologna’s offerings were presented for their relative obscurity, including Chris Marker’s debut feature, Olympia 52 (52), in a program of his “letters” travelogues. The film was screened in a cloudy digibeta transfer from the original 35mm; Marker had in fact opposed the restoration, calling the work not a film but a first attempt. Yet his chronicle of the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki offers more than mere historical interest to those seeking the early traces of a talent whose career spanned 60 years. Olympia 52 features Marker’s characteristically lyrical commentary, both in what the narrator reports and in what the camera shows. During the first half of the film, his curiosity ranges from architecturally angled shots of people walking through a pavilion of flagpoles, to glimpses of faces reflected in shop windows and, in a “serious moment,” a seal lumbering toward his lunch. In a chaotic interruption, a German peace advocate disrupts the opening ceremony proceedings by running onto the field; Marker dwells on the scene, clearly delighting in its anarchic jouissance. Even in the film’s second half, a more conventional reportage of the racing events, Marker’s attention sometimes drifts to athletes at humbler moments, whether stretching and pacing, or lying injured at the side of the track.

Olympia 52 is a far cry from the sturdy bodies and heroic camerawork of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, and Marker slyly inserts a clip from the latter that depicts a swastika-emblazoned flag to match one at Helsinki bearing the Coca-Cola logo. In contrast to Riefenstahl’s choreographed movements through custom-built sets and trenches, Marker’s handheld camera feels fragile, sometimes trembling with the wind. We watch with him from deep within the stands, and though his attention is focused on the games below, he can’t help but sneak glimpses of a boy sipping a milk carton, or a girl leaning anxiously in her seat. Throughout his work Marker addresses the notion of utopia, both its promise and its impossibility, and in Olympia 52, he finds it among the people, on a few days when the shadow of war had all but receded, and as the narrator concludes, “peace really means something.”

Kochiyama Soshun

Kochiyama Soshun

A similar attention to detail could be found in Kochiyama Soshun (36), one of three surviving films by Sadao Yamanaka, who directed 20 in all before being conscripted into the Japanese military and dying before the age of 30. Yamanaka’s period drama, shown in a 35mm print from the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, bears the realist sensibility of a modern Japan struggling through an economic depression. Made with the progressive theater troupe Zenshin-za, the film centers on the plight of a young woman and her ne’er-do-well brother, and offers a rich portrait of a community of merchants, petty thieves, gamblers, geishas, and one samurai who is very anxious about his sword. For all the drama that engulfs this small world, Yamanaka finds moments of graceful symbolism, such as a cutaway to a broken toothpick left by a con artist after he resolves to fight on someone else’s behalf, in the first altruistic gesture he has ever made.

Five Men from the Circus Mikio Naruse

Five Men from the Circus

Mikio Naruse’s big-top drama Five Men from the Circus (35), another selection from the program of early Japanese sound films, also displays an evocative choice of detail and deft formal construction. In early shots of an airborne performer grazing the drooping sides of the tent, the trapeze looms ominously like a warning of the potentially high human cost of spectacle. When the circus workers go on strike, and hapless members of a brass band are brought in as replacements, the manager tells them: “Even if you fall, the audience will like it.” The dreaded fall inevitably occurs in the midst of a noisy brawl, registered by a woman’s superimposed face as she watches in mute horror, and instead of seeing the performer plummeting, we’re left only with a dangling, empty swing.

The Iron Mask Allan Dwan

The Iron Mask

Lavish, heart-stopping spectacle could be found in Allan Dwan’s recently restored The Iron Mask (29), a swashbuckling vehicle for Douglas Fairbanks in his last silent appearance. Aside from awkward spoken interludes, the lithe Fairbanks makes no missteps as D’Artagnan, a role he had already played twice before. Without much in the way of cinematic embellishment beyond incredibly lavish sets, he hops walls, woos the girl, fends off his pursuers, and swiftly scales a tree as if unbound by gravity. Spanning 1911 to 1961, Dwan’s impressive output numbered over 400 films—he was called “that cyclone of the coast” in fan magazines—and in Bologna his rarest works, the early silents, were on luminous display. A world away from Dwan’s snappy, economical B-picture Fifteen Maiden Lane (1936) for Fox, for example, the silents demonstrate an expansive and commanding sense of space, especially in the Westerns. In Man’s Calling (aka Almost a Friar, 1912), the landscape traversed by a young man (J. Warren Kerrigan) reflects his profound dilemma. Journeying to the right, in the direction of the church, takes him down the path chosen for him by his father, while moving left leads him to the home of his eventual wife (Pauline Bush, later Dwan’s first wife). The man moves, at different moments, in both directions, and while the title cards are hardly more expressive than the one marking the word “Restless,” Dwan conveys a range of emotional states through complex spatial choreography.

Similarly The Thief’s Wife (1912) employs deep focus and chiaroscuro lighting effects to illustrate a woman’s anguished plight. Through the window of a shadowy cabin, we watch the flight of her fugitive husband; later, she sobs on a porch streaked with sunlight, attended by a cowboy whose doleful expression indicates that he has fallen deeply and helplessly in love with her. In The Mormon (1912) Dwan uses a telescope to conjure an image of love at first sight, as a young Mormon spies a pioneer woman from across a wide prairie and eventually turns against his marauding brothers to join her side. She too knows how to handle a pistol: though they don’t always fare well, women in Dwan films tend to fight back. Most of Dwan’s work from this period has been lost; Man’s Calling and The Thief’s Wife were culled from the Library of Congress, while The Mormon was a 2k scan of a 35mm nitrate print, the work of Bologna’s L’Immagine Ritrovata restoration lab.

Tigris

Tigris

The early years of Dwan’s career were also a vibrant period for other filmmakers internationally. In a program selected from 1913, this year’s centennial, the films ranged wildly in scope and scale, from one-reeler genre pictures to epic serial features. The period’s extraordinary craftsmanship was evident in Vincenzo Denizot’s Tigris (1913), a 35mm print pulled from the BFI National Archive. In a nod to Méliès, the film begins with a split-screen demonstration of the same actor (Edoardo Davesnes) removing the costumes for the three characters he plays. To complicate matters, but also to show off the film’s virtuosity, the characters frequently don disguises as beggars, valets, and each other, as the detective Roland (Alessandro Bernard) pursues Tigris (Davesnes), the ringleader of a band of masked jewel thieves. While the transformations can be confusing to follow, Tigris dazzles with its stunning effects, including Roland’s miraculous survival on railroad tracks as a train approaches—he pulls himself up by the engine buffers—or, when he is drugged by Tigris, some kaleidoscopic images of a woman dancing over his muddled head. The most magnificent scene, however, comes without the aid of special effects: when Roland chases Tigris into a tunnel, the screen goes to black, only to be brilliantly lit with the flashes of gunfire.

Ingeborg Holm

Ingeborg Holm

The storytelling on display in the 1913 program was no less sophisticated. In Victor Sjöström’s Ingeborg Holm, as harsh a social critique as any committed to film, a young widow (Hilda Borgström) is systematically broken down by the institutions that fail to help her—the poorhouse, the foster homes where her children are sent, and finally the insane asylum in which she cradles a rag doll, unable to bear the piecemeal dispersal of her family. Sjöström lets the camera linger on Borgström’s large eyes, which transform from expressing youthful exuberance, captured in a photograph, to displaying a dull glaze formed by 15 years of sorrow and neglect. No matter how happy the family’s eventual reunion, the reappearance of that photograph, shockingly dissimilar from the wizened woman on view before us, lays bare the devastation of those intervening years. The film’s restoration journey, too, was almost as dramatic as that of its suffering heroine: the restored 35mm print was struck from nitrate negatives in 1969, then in 1986, after a lost censorship edit was found, new scenes were added in, along with intertitle cards provided by the Svenska Filminstitutet.

Our Friends the Police

Our Friends the Police

Amid the variety there was even a surprise that the programmers hadn’t anticipated: an unnamed fragment of an Éclair actuality film shot in Shanghai and attached to the reel of Our Friends the Police (1913). The milky print of horse-drawn carts, bas-reliefs studies, and “plants with human aspects” screened with improvised piano accompaniment, and offered a glimpse not only of Shanghai but the perspective of those holding the camera as well. Such moments, when the camera’s view onto the world offered insight into that of the filmmaker, were apparent in Jackie Raynal’s Deux Fois (68), a bold experimental feature shot only months after the events of May 1968, and presented in Bologna by the Cinémathèque de Toulouse. Raynal mesmerizes as the film’s central figure, greedily eats her breakfast, whispers inaudibly into a man’s ear, and purchases soap in a drugstore while speaking multiple languages. These scenes, which are sometimes repeated as if culled from different takes, illustrate Raynal’s acuity as an editor as she highlights the constructed nature of synch sound, camera movement, and other filmmaking technique. In the middle of such self-reflexive gestures, the film shifts, and the camera swings in a full circle around a broad Barcelona boulevard. Passing by the faces of curious pedestrians, it opens an otherwise hermetic film to the winds of a rapidly changing world.

Marlen Khutsiyev July Rain

July Rain

Marlen Khutsiyev’s July Rain (66), which screened in a gorgeous 35mm CinemaScope print in Bologna’s Cinema Arlecchino, begins with a similar pan across pedestrians on a crowded Moscow street before trailing a blonde woman. She’s later identified as Lena (Evgenija Uralova), but here, stopping under a shop awning during a sudden downpour, hers is just one story out of many. Like her friends, she’s a woman haunted by the memory of past wars and uncertain about her future. In portraying this tenuous present—an “era of peaceful coexistence,” as one character ironically puts it— Khutsiyev’s sensibility is distinctly modern, even suggestive of New Wave filmmakers, especially as the troubled romance at the center of the film continually brushes up against the gritty reality of the contemporary Soviet city. At the end, the film again takes a documentary approach to record a group of young men outside the Bolshoi Theater, where veterans have gathered to commemorate the Red Army’s march to Berlin. The camera studies the boys’ faces as they listen, though their expressions are ultimately inscrutable. In these various encounters, experienced sometimes through Lena, and sometimes through the wandering of the camera, July Rain suggests the obscure though inevitable passage of time.

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