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The Song of Songs (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933)

It is easy to get lost in blissful nostalgia at Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, Italy. It is easy to dream yourself into history when you can glance away from the long-dead stars of the century-old—and still astonishing—Stella Dallas (Henry King, 1925), take in the Renaissance facades of the palazzos that encircle the Piazza Maggiore, and spy pinpricks of ancient starlight poking through the projector beam above your head. It is easy to believe that the past is at the tips of your fingers—and it’s also a lie.

The festival is not a recreation of bygone glories; it is a declaration of a peculiarly privileged present. We are among the first generations of filmgoers to be able to rediscover cinema in this kind of dedicated, specialist environment. For all the conversations about authorial intent and the relative merits of 4K versus acetate versus nitrate versus—oh, I don’t know—good old zoetrope in delivering an authentic experience, the fact remains: none of these films were designed to be watched in quite this way. However reverent the presentation, however well-contextualized the film, this is cinema as it was never meant to be seen.

American director Rouben Mamoulian, the subject of a major retrospective, certainly did not make any of his dozen featured titles with the idea that one day they would be jostling for space in a critic’s schedule between vintage Teinosuke Kinugasa prints, Anna Magnani appreciations, 1970s U.S. indies, German exile comedies, and a restoration of The Dupes (Tewfik Saleh, 1972). Saleh’s film was reportedly a dazzling, The Wages of Fear–esque highlight for all who saw it and perhaps the biggest source of FOMO for those, like me, who did not. But though the sheer breadth of the program at Il Cinema Ritrovato means that every film seen means five missed, the quality of the curation is such that every Sophie’s Choice you make seems, in retrospect, the right one.

In Mamoulian’s case, five distinctly different films were enough to convince any skeptic of the director’s right to a plinth in the Hollywood pantheon. Even The Song of Songs (1933), the least engaging of the quintet, beautifully demonstrates his trademark tension, which curator Ehsan Khoshbakht irresistibly described as a clash between “the holy and the horny.” Marlene Dietrich’s naïve peasant moves to Berlin with only her late father’s Bible in hand, and is promptly cajoled into posing nude for a sculptor (a recessive Brian Aherne). Her descent from holiness to horniness is evoked in mirroring shots (a Mamoulian hallmark, along with musical sequences and flashbacks) at the beginning and end, when Dietrich’s face—a slap of sudden, stunning beauty—is revealed by the twist of a black hat brim.

The same year’s Queen Christina is similarly worshipful of its leading lady’s sculptural gorgeousness, deriving much of its power from Greta Garbo’s eternal features, as her character is torn between her regal duties and her love for John Gilbert’s Spanish envoy. Much has been made of the film’s queer-coding, from Christina’s habit of dressing in masculine garb to her relationship with her lady-in-waiting (the real-life Christina is rumored to have been lesbian). But elsewhere, Mamoulian often delivered outright raunch: certain dissolves in The Song of Songs make it look as though Dietrich is naked, and festival attendees were treated to an easter-egg bonus scene from Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931) in which Miriam Hopkins essentially performs a striptease. In comparison, the two same-sex kisses in Queen Christina are disappointingly chaste, as is the sex romp Christina and her lover enjoy inside a curtained-off four-poster bed. Yet horny still finds a way, as Garbo, whose skill in imbuing objects with romantic-tragic-nostalgic-erotic charge remains unparalleled, wanders around her rural love nest, committing it to memory through touch. Even a rustic religious icon is dreamily defiled as she presses her cheek to it in unmistakable post-coital satisfaction.

Sometimes Mamoulian represents this religion/raunch dichotomy through two different women. In the torrid toreador yarn Blood and Sand (1941), saintly Linda Darnell vies with Rita Hayworth’s vamp for the callow attentions of Tyrone Power’s bullfighter. The melodrama is ripe Manchego, but the painterly Technicolor is glorious, and Laird Cregar’s bullfight critic is an enjoyable caricature of professional venality. And while Mamoulian stages few actual bullfights, he delights in evoking the movements and mannerisms of matadors when outlining human relationships. Hence Hayworth’s sneering call of “Aha, toro!” to summon her conquest to heel. And hence one of Mamoulian’s greatest dance scenes, in which Anthony Quinn’s rising-star torero snaffles Hayworth away from her former plaything with a few imperious moves that make her the stamping, fretting bull to his cape-flapping mesmerist. From a nearby table, a scowling Power looks on in impotent vexation and crushes a wineglass in his hand.

We Live Again (1934), a Tolstoy story on which Preston Sturges gets an adaptation credit, echoes the narrative of The Song of Songs: a purehearted country girl (Anna Sten) is callously used by a worldly man (Fredric March) and falls from respectability, before he decides, years later, that he loves her after all. Here the story takes place in prerevolutionary Russia and has one of classic Hollywood’s most improbable happy endings, as March’s prince renounces all his property and joins his prostitute paramour on a jaunt to the Siberian gulag. The politics are facile, but the romance works—perhaps because this is one Mamoulian movie where the male lead can hold his own against a blazing female co-star.

Speaking of Sturges, it can only be because of its superficial similarities to his 1941 classic The Lady Eve that Mamoulian’s delightful screwball comedy Rings on Her Fingers (1942) is not better regarded. It may not have Eve’s sophisticated subversion, and Henry Fonda’s patsy character may be a reprise of his Eve persona, but there is a genuine crackle of chemistry between his mistaken-for-a-millionaire mark and Gene Tierney’s girdle salesgirl–turned–con artist. Maybe it’s just the slightly gawky gorgeousness of Tierney’s famous overbite, a feature she refused to correct, but Rings on Her Fingers has moments—like with Dietrich’s hat-reveals or the tacky, diamanté flash of Hayworth’s scornful eyes—when a face or a gesture from the past landed on me with shocking newness.

But then, that happened time and again across the festival. In the otherwise cumbersome The Golden Coach (Jean Renoir, 1952), which screened in a section dedicated to Anna Magnani, when Duncan Lamont’s viceroy gifts the titular carriage to his lover Camilla, played by a superb Magnani, the actress responds with an incredulous “Eh?” It is, of all things, dorky—a moment of hilarious naturalism amid the artifice. In another newly restored Renoir that played at the fest, the eerie, psychologically knotty The Woman on the Beach (1947), the perversely codependent relationship between Joan Bennett’s Peggy and her embittered husband (Charles Bickford) struck me as unusual for its era, too: in one extraordinary exchange, she kittens up to him coyly despite—or maybe because of—her recent tryst with Robert Ryan’s PTSD-addled coast guard.

Speaking of both PTSD and remarkable, atemporal faces: Peter Kass’s Time of the Heathen (1961) is the kind of film destined to spawn a substantial cult. Shown alongside Nancy Savoca’s excellent 1982 short Renata (which reminded me obscurely of Andrea Arnold’s 2003 Wasp), Kass’s feature, starring the inexplicable topography of actor John Heffernan’s crumpled visage, is bold in ways that prefigure the exploitation explosion of the ’60s and ’70s. But any garishness in its storyline—a drifter (Heffernan) accused of the rape and murder of a Black servant is pursued, with only the dead woman’s mute young son as a companion, by the actual killer and his rabidly racist father—is offset by a pervasive quasi-apocalyptic mood. This bleak, paranoid timbre is no mere stylistic affectation, but is rooted in the tortured psyche of Heffernan’s oddball, who is trying to atone for his role—refracted in chilling flashbacks—in the bombing of Hiroshima. Heathen ends with a hallucinatory sequence (in sudden psychedelic color) that feels as though the film has reached, and then transgressed, the limits of traditional expressivity.

In this way, it’s akin to Bushman (David Schickele, 1971), which was my personal favorite festival discovery (the soundtrack! the street-level cinematography!) even before its narrative abruptly breaks down following the detention and eventual deportation of its main actor. Gabriel (Paul Eyam Nzie Okpokam) is a well-educated Nigerian observing the foibles of contemporary American Black culture with an outsider’s incisive eye, yielding a vibrant snapshot of the nation’s racial politics—when the director’s voice intrudes to narrate star Okpokam’s enraging fate, and the film morphs into a documentary. The rupture in form cannot but occur with a complacency-shattering jolt—yet another of this festival’s myriad examples of cinema’s ability to encode little packages of explosive revelation into its fabric like so much TNT, just waiting for the next viewer to trigger another real-time detonation.

This was my first time attending Il Cinema Ritrovato—a festival to which now I will never not be returning. I’ll come back partly for the friends, the sunshine, the spritzes, and the tortellini en brodo supped on a terrace between one’s fifth and sixth movies of the day. But mostly I’ll return for its addictive paradox: while peeking into worlds created decades before I was born, when the medium was young and didn’t know any better, I have seldom been so alive to cinema’s vital, vivid immediacy. As they immersed me in the faces and forms of the long-gone past, the movies have never felt more modern.

Jessica Kiang is a freelance critic with regular bylines in VarietySight and SoundThe New York TimesThe Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone, and is the international programmer for the Belfast Film Festival.