By Patrick Keating and Lisa Jasinski.
During its eight day run in July 2013, the 27th Cinema Ritrovato Film Festival offered a dizzying schedule of screenings, conversations, and special events at five local venues throughout the compact city center of Bologna, Italy. The festival brought together 17 programs, celebrating rarely seen and recently restored prints from an eclectic mix of auteurs, nations, decades, and genres.
Each year the Ritrovato curators highlight films made 100 years ago, and this summer’s rich offerings from 1913 did not disappoint the sizable international crowds. This year’s centennial included a variety of shorts and features, including a standing-room-only screening of Enrico Guazzoni’s Quo Vadis (1913) and several programs of short films from France, Great Britain, Hollywood, Italy, Germany, and Russia. A memorable example, shown at the start of the festival, was the hilarious Kri Kri e il Tango (1913), one of a reported 72 shorts made that year with the inexhaustible Italian comedian Kri Kri (Raymond Frau). The film, in which the comic competes with a young rival for a woman’s attention at a society ball, ends with a vertiginous shot of the two dancers locked in a whirling, centripetal embrace; only their faces are legible as the background spins into an indistinct blur. Indeed, such a shot served to help the viewers anticipate the visual and emotional spectacle planned for the upcoming week.
This year’s festival paid homage to the five-decade career of prolific filmmaker Allan Dwan. While Dwan’s career has not been celebrated to the degree of past festival honorees, including von Sternberg, Capra, Ford, and Hawks, his entertaining genre pictures held their own, including two excellent films with strong female performances: Manhandled (1924), with Gloria Swanson as a brassy shop girl, and 15 Maiden Lane (1936), with a young Claire Trevor investigating a jewel thief. Another true standout was Dwan’s East Side, West Side (1927), which starts out as a commentary on class and ethnic identity in New York City, then turns into a boxing story, and ends up on the Titanic. Prior to the screening, accompanying pianist Donald Sosin, joined by vocalist Joanna Seaton, led the crowd in a rendition of the popular song from which the film drew its title. As an added treat, the screening featured a fragment from Dwan’s otherwise lost 1929 film Frozen Justice, including a jaw-dropping dolly shot lasting several minutes as the camera introduces us to the rambunctious citizens of an Alaskan Gold Rush town.
The festival screened the nine silent Alfred Hitchcock films recently restored under the supervision of Bryony Dixon at the British Film Institute. The opening sequence of the earliest surviving film, 1925’s The Pleasure Garden, looked ahead to Hitch’s later works with its visually daring experiments with voyeuristic point-of-view editing. But the series was also notable for showing a less familiar side of the director’s ouevre. Only two of the silents were crime films, including the silent version of Blackmail (1929), and films like the rural comedy The Farmer’s Daughter (1928) and the Ivor Novello vehicle Downhill (1927) provided an opportunity to see the future master of suspense in command of gentler genres.
The festival honored the work of other auteurs as well, including six early films from French avant-garde filmmaker Chris Marker (e.g. 1957’s Letter from Siberia), and several titles showcasing the work of Olga Preobrazhenskaya and Ivan Pravov. Their 1929 film The Last Attraction, with a script credited to Victor Shklovsky, offered sharp and funny commentary on the relationship between art and politics. Mixing comedy, drama and suspense, the story shows Red and White forces competing to control the performances of what is initially an ideologically uncommitted circus troupe.
Another source of popularly attended screenings, the “Recovered and Restored” program, offered a wide variety of popular titles, ranging from the somberly atmospheric Une Si Jolie Petite Plage (Yves Allégret, 1949), featuring richly toned black-and-white photography by Henri Alekan, and Shochiku’s gorgeous color restoration of Yashujiro Ozu’s final film, An Autumn Afternoon (1962). One afternoon, we saw a thrilling double feature of San Francisco thrillers: the bank robbery procedural Experiment in Terror (Blake Edwards, 1962) and the at-times-mouth-agape Sudden Fear (David Miller, 1952), in which scheming newlyweds Jack Palance and Joan Crawford plot each other’s demise in spectacular, and always surprising, fashion. Though the festival as a whole emphasizes 35mm prints, many of the restorations in this program were shown in digital versions, allowing festivalgoers to ponder the respective merits of the different systems. From our perspective, the DCP format held up quite well, particularly when presenting the deep shadows of the film noirs.
The excellent “War Is Near” program showcased films made in Europe and Hollywood on the verge of World War II. A beautiful print of Max Ophuls’s tragic romantic drama Sans lendemain (1940) was one of the crowning moments of the festival. Indeed, the festival exists to bring such hard-to-see gems before an eager public. Frank Borzage’s Three Comrades (1938) and Edmond Greville’s Menaces (1940) helped round out this program; the latter film, made during the tumultuous events of 1939, features Erich von Stroheim as an Austrian professor with a black mask covering half of his war-scarred face. Together, these films captured the chaos, despair, and destruction of a world preparing to be torn apart.
Following on a series of early sound films from Japan screened during the 2012 festival, curators Alexander Jacoby & Johan Nordstrom returned with a robust continuation and nine more Japanese early talkies, including the charming modern drama Wife! Be Like a Rose! (Mikio Naruse, 1935). Jacoby and Nordstrom provided efficient and enthusiastic introductions for each film in the series.
Each day of the festival ended with a free plein air screening in the town’s Medieval center, the Piazza Maggoire, equipped with a drive-in style screen and seating for a thousand. These screenings honored well-loved classics like Rome Open City (1945), Badlands (1973), and Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). Many features were paired with restored shorts, including several Chaplins restored by Lobster Films and the Cinema Ritrovato workshop: Burlesque on Carmen (1915), The Pawn Shop (1916), The Cure (1917), and The Adventurer (1917). A restored version of Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) began with a heretofore unseen opening motion shot present in Jacques Ledoux’s print, stored in the Belgian Film Archive. Beyond the festival, the Bologna Cinematheque offers free outdoor screenings, as part of the “Cinema under the Stars” series, for nearly the entire summer.
At every festival, there always seems to be one film that you stumble into by chance—with little expectation or pretense—that just blows you away. For us, it was the Russian film Lyulskiy Dozhd (July Rain, 1966), directed by Marlen Khoutsiev and offered as part of the program on European CinemaScope. The film follows hapless protagonist Lena through 1960s Moscow, glimpsing the rarely seen world of empty relationships among Russia’s bourgeois intellectuals, recalling the masked motivations and melancholy of Michelangelo Antonioni.
The festival program swelled with a robust offering of companion events: panel discussions, academic papers, conversations about the restorations, and introductions. A few highlights included Charles Barr’s well-researched presentation on the restored Hitchcock silents, a dialogue with Hollywood director and cinéphile Alexander Payne, and Agnès Varda’s introduction to her film La Pointe Courte (1955). One downside to these numerous offerings, and the time taken to offer live translations, is that the already “at capacity” screening schedule (fully booked from 9 am – 8 pm) was often delayed as a result.
In addition to the selections named above, the programs included tributes to Vittorio De Sica as both a director and actor; a collection of Czech New Wave films; Cinema Libero, a program of independent films, many now classics, that originally struggled to find distribution; and a brief tribute to actor Burt Lancaster.
If one had to find fault with this year’s Cinema Ritrovato, it would be that in the midst of so many series and programs, it was hard to grasp just a single focus, let alone to try and see everything in the festival. Still, it is hard to criticize the organizers for adopting a “more-is-more” philosophy given the truly excellent recent work of film conservationists, archives, and private collectors.
Patrick Keating is an Associate Professor of Communication and Chair of Film Studies at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. He is the author of Hollywood Lighting from the Silent Era to Film Noir.
Lisa Jasinski is the Special Projects Coordinator in the division of Academic Affairs at Trinity University.