By Patrick Keating and Lisa Jasinski.
Organized by the Cineteca Bologna, “Il Cinema Ritrovat” honors forgotten films rediscovered in the world’s archives, along with recently restored prints of major classics.
For eight days in the summer of 2010, an international crowd of moviegoers ambled the porticoed streets of Bologna, a medieval town nestled in the center of the northern Italian province of Emilia-Romagna, shuffling between the festival’s four main venues to view a selection of 313 films.
Festival curators organized the films into several distinct programs, sometimes highlighting the work of a particular auteur, sometimes a particular region, technology, or theme. One major programmatic thread presented the early works of John Ford, from the 1917 Western Straight Shooting to early sound films like the fantastical The Black Watch. The latter film shows Ford experimenting with picture-sound relationships, with cinematographer Joseph August overcoming early-sound obstacles to produce a series of gorgeous images, such as an almost abstract battle scene rendered in glowing backlight and hazy smoke. As these rare titles suggest, the program offered the opportunity to view over a dozen early Ford films not included in the recent twenty-four film DVD collection “Ford at Fox.”
Whereas the Ford series devoted a rather scholarly emphasis on some of the director’s lesser-known works, the crowd-pleasing Stanley Donen retrospective featured some of the best-loved classical musicals of all time (Funny Face, Charade), as well as appearances by the director himself. Donen’s films were particularly well served by the screening facilities. The bittersweet It’s Always Fair Weather looked terrific on the wide screen in the vintage Arlecchino, a venue seemingly untouched since the fifties, perfectly suited for Gene Kelly’s exuberant CinemaScope dance sequences. Singin’ in the Rain was screened in Bologna’s civic center, the Piazza Maggiore, and the film’s signature energy was infectious in the beautiful context: an ancient medieval plaza swelling with an enthusiastic nighttime crowd. The audience for Singin’ was also treated to the delightful 1962 Oscar-winning comedy short, Heureux Anniversaire, by Pierre Etaix.
Another potential highlight did not fare as well in the Piazza Maggiore: Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard was played at an ear-splitting volume, prompting a few spectators to leave before the screening finally concluded, well past one in the morning. Despite the sound malfunction, the picture was astonishingly beautiful, earning its place as a centerpiece jewel of the festival.
Visconti’s epic was photographed using the anamorphic Technirama process, using twice the negative of standard 35mm film (2.55:1), and the recent high-resolution restoration did justice to the director’s vision. The textured fabrics, the fading frescoes, the sun-baked landscapes – every detail was fully visible, bringing the 19th Century to life. Indeed this recent restoration is a work of art unto itself – achieved by first scanning the film’s original negative at an extremely high-resolution and completing over 12,000 laborious hours of digital correction to enhance both soundtrack and image. In the words of the Festival Director, this project “clearly demonstrates how new technologies, when applied ethically, can restore the life and pleasure of seeing films from the past.” With panels and sessions devoted to the art and science of film restoration, the festival gives momentum to essential conversations about preserving an inherently instable media.
Another masterwork of recent restoration embodies the festival’s abiding commitment to “rediscovered cinema,” Fitz Lang’s complete Metropolis, was screened in the Piazza, containing 25 additional minutes of lost footage from the film’s original Berlin debut over eighty years ago.
Other directors whose works were featured at the festival included Albert Cappellani, Robert Florey, and Federico Fellini. Fans of Fellini could visit an exhibit on the director’s life and work, at the nearby MAMbo, Bologna’s contemporary art museum.
Some of the best programs did not take an auteur as the central focus, including a program dedicated to the “Adventurous Women of the Silent Screen.” Inspired by the “Women and the Silent Screen” academic conference, held in Bologna just days before the festival began, this assortment featured several exciting short films with fearless heroines in action. The Purple Mask, a 1916 serial starring Grace Cunard, who also wrote and co-directed the episodes with Francis Ford, had a surprisingly surreal plot involving a masked woman’s attempt to avenge the victims of a corrupt business scheme. She is assisted by a team of loyal assistants dressed in purple robes and further aided by various bizarre technologies, including a button that allowed Cunard’s protagonist to escape behind hidden walls that unexpectedly burst up through the floor. Another highlight was “The White Roses,” an episode of the silent serial The Lighting Raider featuring an explicitly feminist scene when the protagonist bursts into a room full of male anthropologists discussing the alleged inferiority of the female brain and proves them wrong with a delightful display of female power.
Color was the subject of another mini-program, entitled “Alla Ricerca del Colore dei Film,” which focused on the period in the 1950s and early 1960s when filmmakers were making the transition away from three-strip Technicolor as the dominant color process. In addition to The Leopard, examples included Visconti’s Senso, The African Queen, Picnic, and the widescreen Western Jubal. Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar was a special treat, with Joan Crawford’s intense emotional performance heightened by the vibrant color.
The World Cinema Foundation sponsored films from Hungary, Egypt, India, and Sweden. We were unfamiliar with Kazakhstan’s Ermek Shinarbaev, but his 1989 revenge tale Mest was one of the best films in the festival. A multi-generation historic fable with hints of magic realism, the film has a unique look that hints at the supernatural without losing its grounding in the real world. Instead of using elaborate effects, Shinarbaev relies on a de-saturated color palette and a simple mist filter that gives all the film’s highlights an eerie glow. Seeing this rare film on the big screen reminds us why festivals like the Cinema Ritrovato exist – while it is always enjoyable to reconnect with old favorites, the most memorable films are often the ones we are not expecting to see.
Patrick Keating is an assistant professor of Communication at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX and the author of Hollywood Lighting From the Silent Era to Film Noir.
Lisa Jasinski is a faculty member for the Department of Education at Trinity University.