Festivals: Il Cinema Ritrovato
During a panel on the evolving dynamic between digital and chemical processes in film restoration and distribution at this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato, Grover Crisp of Sony Pictures noted that for the worldwide release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 the studio made only 700 film prints (with 500 going to Brazil), while just a handful of years ago, thousands of prints were made for a typical summer blockbuster. The very next evening, in the Piazetta Pasolini of the Cineteca di Bologna, the experimental film legend Peter Kubelka electrified the audience with the filmiest of film programs: his Monument Film (12), composed of his flicker films Arnulf Rainer (58-60) and Antiphon (12) projected consecutively, side by side, and on top of one another in a grand celebration of the formal qualities of film.
Kubelka’s introduction took on an elegiac tone as he bemoaned the rise of digital, as an artist committed to working on film but unable to halt its demise. Such are the contradictions and compromises that the field of preservation and the festival find themselves navigating. Counting shorts, more than 200 movies screen in the lineup each year, and it is a given that more and more are shown digitally, mostly in the form of new digital restorations but also for lack of film prints. A robust selection of titles are still screened in 35mm, with some showing extreme signs of wear.
Night of the Storyteller
Now in its 28th year, Il Cinema Ritrovato (“rediscovered cinema”) brings together archivists, critics, curators, filmmakers, and eager cinephiles for perhaps the most enjoyable and egalitarian week of archival and repertory cinema to be found anywhere in the world. A weekly pass to the fest is 80 Euros, a relative bargain compared to other large international festivals, and it grants the general public virtually the same level of access to its many offerings as anyone else in attendance.
“Rediscovery” can have a number of meanings at Il Cinema Ritrovato. Perhaps the most literal example this year was Robert Flaherty’s Night of the Storyteller (35), the first film shot in Irish Gaelic, restored by the Harvard Film Archive from a 35mm nitrate print found on a shelf there last year. Another example is Why Be Good? (29), a Warner Bros.–Vitaphone feature starring the great silent star Colleen Moore that was thought to be lost for decades but was brought back to light by a pair of persistent historians who knew of a print in an Italian archive. Conversely, Fred Zinnemann’s Oklahoma! (55) could hardly be considered a lost film, but it proved to be new to many eyes, and its restoration was only possible with new digital technology. As 20th Century Fox’s Schawn Belston explained, special processes were developed to address the color fade of the 65mm interpositive and the fact that the Todd-AO version of the film was shot at 30 frames per second.
In any case, there are simply too many films in the festival to see everything, or even representative samples from each program. It was never lost on me that picking one film over another could mean missing my final opportunity to see something ever again (in a theatrical setting, at least). There were spotlights on Indian films from the Fifties, Germaine Dulac, Polish New Wave Cinemascope films, and films from the Ottoman Empire from 1896 to 1914, and I didn’t see any of them. One strong program was the spotlight on Italian director Riccardo Freda. Averse to both comedy and postwar neorealism, Freda directed popular films across genres including melodrama, horror, period piece, and adventure. My favorites included Theodora, Slave Empress (53), a sword-and-sandal epic about a slave girl who ends up marrying the emperor; the historical melodrama Beatrice Cenci (56); and Maciste all’inferno (62), an entry that finds the recurring Hercules-like hero happening upon a 19th-century-style witch-burning frenzy (why not?).
Another strand of interest was “Cinema at War Against Hitler,” an international selection of films produced during Nazi rule as well as a pair of postwar films. James Hogan’s The Strange Death of Adolf Hitler (43) depicts a Viennese man with a talent for impersonations who is forced to become a double for Hitler. The man’s death is faked and he’s branded a traitor, leading his wife to seek revenge for what has become of her family. John Farrow’s The Hitler Gang (44) might best be described as a Classics Illustrated–style life of Hitler (played by Robert Watson), featuring all the major players and incidents from the Führer’s rise to power including the eager-to-please, ever-frustrated Rudolf Hess (Victor Varconi). The extremely rare Hitler’s Reign of Terror (34) is more intriguing for its backstory than as a finished film, but makes for a fascinating document nonetheless. In 1933, Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr. traveled throughout Europe with two cameraman to interview heads of state including the newly elected Chancellor of Germany. The film is comprised of interviews, newsreel footage, and reenactments, one of which depicts Vanderbilt pressing Hitler with the question “And what about the Jews?” When the German ambassador at the time protested its release, the film was pulled from distribution, but it was re-released in 1939 with some I-told-you-so additions by Vanderbilt.
Life Begins Tomorrow
I saw only one film in the festival’s retrospective of German director Werner Hochbaum, Life Begins Tomorrow (33), which emerged as the consensus favorite among his films. The story follows the release of a man from prison, the series of events that prevents his wife from picking him up, and the mistrust that follows. It echoes moments of silent-era Fritz Lang as well as Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a City and Paul Fejos’s Lonesome, and anticipates much of the cinema of Jean Grémillon.
Another often terrific series spotlighted individual episodes from the many Italian omnibus films made between 1952 and 1969. Three stood out for me. Directed by and starring Nino Manfredi, L’avventura di un soldato (62, from L’amore difficile) tracks the currents of sexual desire and repression between a soldier and a woman aboard a train. Luigi Filippo D’Amico’s comedy Guglielmo il dentone (65, from I complessi) stars the incomparable Alberto Sordi as a man participating in a contest to become a television news reader. He’s supremely qualified in every way—poise, eloquence, intelligence—but possesses a set of protruding teeth that are impossible to ignore. In Eduardo De Filippo’s fable-like Cova delle uova (52, from Marito e moglie), Tina Pica plays a peasant woman who obsesses over her hens at the expense of her sickly husband (De Filippo), whom she suspects of malingering. When she discovers that his fever is the perfect temperature for hatching eggs, she becomes much more interested in keeping him in his bed.
In honor of the 100th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp, the Cineteca di Bologna hosted a Chaplin conference prior to the festival. There was also a suite of restored Essanay films and an exhibition of art by Léo Kouper, perhaps the artist most associated with illustrating the Tramp in promotional materials.
The Most Wonderful Evening of My Life
No trip to Il Cinema Ritrovato is complete without watching at least one of the nightly films under the stars in the Piazzetta Maggiore, surrounded by thousands of other moviegoers. This year I watched Ettore Scola introduce his The Most Wonderful Evening of My Life (72), starring Alberto Sordi as a somewhat shady fabric salesman who gets stranded at a Swiss lodge inhabited by a group of professionals and aristocrats. He quickly finds himself at the center of an elaborately staged parlor game with echoes of The Wicker Man or The Most Dangerous Game.
Finally, one of the great pleasures of the festival is revisiting a film one may have seen before, even multiple times, in a new restoration and with an audience that is often composed of younger viewers seeing the film for the first time. It was fun to see Vittorio De Sica’s Marriage Italian Style (64) again, and the screening was made even more enjoyable by the extra delight that the mostly Italian viewers seemed to be experiencing seeing their national screen icons Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni together in a great film on a big screen as part of an audience. I’m left to wonder what the quite similar audience in the same theater thought about Rock Hudson’s café brawl set to “The Yellow Rose of Texas” at the end of Giant (56) earlier in the festival. Molto americano.