Il Cinema Ritrovato 2016


This was the 30th year of this archive Festival and it has changed a lot since I first attended in 1994 Then about 200 people filled the old Lumière cinema for a varied programme of both silent and sound archive films. The silent films were shown just that way, though in the evenings when we moved to the Teatro Communale any silent films did have a musical accompaniment. This year about 2,500 registered guests plus a cross-section of the film appreciation population of Bologna filled numerous venues for a programme in which one person could only see about a fifth of the titles. There were three auditorium at the Cineteca, the Sala Mastroianni and Sala Scorsese and the smaller Sala Cervi. There was the Arlecchino, large, comfortable and with a fine widescreen. Then the Cinema Jolly, smaller but still with ample space. In addtion there are evenings screenings in the Piazza Maggiore: here thousands of people crowded in to see the most well-known films, including those of Marlon Brando, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. And there was the Piazzetta Pier Paulo Pasolini at the Cineteca. There was one parallel with 1994, my first year at Il Cinema Ritrovato coincided with a FIAF Conference and that was back this year. In addition there was a now a regular course in Film Restoration that runs parallel to the Festival.

A queue across the Piazzetta

A queue across the Piazzetta

Working through the programme of films and making choices was extremely difficult: many essential films often clashed, though some did get repeat screenings. Then one had to balance the wear and tear of Festival, this year people were queuing for a screening up to half-an-hour before the start, and even that did not mean getting a seat. My simple strategy was to prioritise 35mm screenings, all of the really interesting films originated on this format, and one is unsure how much longer one will get opportunities to see films in this format. In most cases I also went for films I had not seen or seen only rarely. So I missed out the screenings devoted to Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Marlon Bando, much as I love all three.

An Alternate History of Argentine Film offered films made between 1935 and 1968. The surprise was a film whose title interested me, Sangre Negra (1950). This turned out to be a film adaptation of Richard Wright’s seminal novel, Native Son (1940). The book is set in Chicago and is a powerful picture of the black experience of US racism. Richard Wright both scripted the film and appeared as the protagonist Bigger Thomas. The film was directed by a French exile to Argentina Pierre Chenal. This was powerful rendering of the novel. Argentina made a pretty good fist of standing in for Chicago, though it could not provide the snow that features in the book. And the film did not essay the subjective commentary that provides the book’s narrative.

Late Spring – Looking at the Cinema of the Thaw offered films from the 1950s in the USSR as the changes following the death of Stalin unfolded. The programme was curated and introduced by Peter Bagrov and Olaf Möller: a double act that could have walked out of a Samuel Beckett play. I managed to see the whole programme, which included black and white and colour film. A friend remarked that the films were overloaded with dialogue: this seemed to follow from the attempt to include political lines important at the period. It was clear that the filmmakers of the 1950s did not achieve the quality of their silent predecessors in imbuing films with politics. For me the best film was Dom, V Kotorom Ja Živu, made in 1957 at the M. Gor’kij film studio. This was a drama set in a multi-story set of apartments in Moscow. The film  opens as the families moved into their new [and for them superior] accommodation. We followed the fortunes and interactions of several families up to and through the Great Patriotic War and the return of peace in the mid-1940s. The film had something of a neo-realist feel, often observational, whilst still having its fair share of high drama. The film was directed by Lev Kulidžanov and Jakov Segal, neither of whose work I had seen before.

We had a series of colour film from Japan in the 1950s, Richness and Harmony. As with previous programmes of Japanese film we enjoyed several introductions by Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström who curated the programme. There were well known titles such as Narayama Bushiko / The Ballad of Narayama (1958): this film was on DCP. Like several other titles it was filmed on Eastmancolor stock and some deterioration was noticeable. My favourite was Kiiroi Karasu / The Yellow Crow (1957). The film was directed by Gosho Heinosuke, who was responsible for the colour theme suggested in the title. The film concerned the family travails when the father returns from a wartime absence followed by period in a Soviet POW camp. The young son finds his retuned father difficult to relate to. There was a fine performance by Tanaka Kinuyo as  a neighbour who acts as an intermediary in the family relationships.

Separate to this was a whole programme around colour film, A 1950s Survey, though it included titles from the 1960s. The only title that I caught was Marnie (1964). This was projected in a good print, but it remains a deeply problematic film. The Catalogue had one of those Hitchcok devotee attempts to rescue the film. Writing on the ending Jean Douchet commented,

“At that point, the film’s ‘happy ending’ is terrifying.”

This is true, but leaves so many other aspects unanswered. Another title on show was Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) which impressed a friend.

One programme that I found particularly interesting was Universal Pictures: the Laemmle Junior Years. This included film made between 1929 and 1935, so there were not only early sound titles but films labelled ‘pre-code’, that is film produced before the Production Code was effectively enforced from 1934. There was a fine early William Wyler film with Walter Huston, A House Divided (1931) and two ‘women’s’ films’ directed by John Stahl, Back Street (1932) and Only Yesterday (1933). But the standout was a film and director that were completely new to me, Laughter in Hell (1933) by Edward L Cahn. This was essentially a chain-gang movie, and the most brutal in its depiction that I have seen. The film adapted a work by the ‘hobo novelist’ Jim Tully: Beggars of Life is another of his novels. Pat O-Brien was the protagonist, far less bland than usual. But the violence was mainly perpetrated against the negro prisoners and the film was far more radical about prison violence and racism than was usual in Hollywood of the period.

We also enjoyed one of the real treats of the Festival, three evening screenings in the Piazzetta Pier Paulo Pasolini from a Carbon Arc Projector. There was Stella Dallas (1925) directed by Henry King and equal in many ways to the 1937 remake. This enjoyed a score by Stephen Horne which he had composed for an earlier screening at the Hippfest Silent Film Festival. Then we had Jean Epstein’s Coeur Fidèle (1923): a tinted print of one of my favourite of his films. This had an accompaniment by Gabriel Thibaudeau. And on the Saturday we had a selection of early short films selected by Mariann Lewinsky [one of the treasures of the Festival]. These films had an accompaniment by Daniele Furlati. And there was extra treat, the original 1895 Lumière programme of films projected from a 1899 projector. The ambiance of these screenings in the courtyard of the Cineteca was great: the particular luminosity of carbon arc, the music that accompanied the films, and the audience sitting in night-times shadows as the images flickered across the screen.

Stella Dallas screened from a carbon arc projector

Stella Dallas screened from a carbon arc projector

I also watched a number of films on DCP. This format does mean that films are more likely to circulate and maybe turn up in the UK. I really enjoyed The Chase (1966), directed by Arthur Penn with a superb screenplay from Lillian Hellman. This has been restored in 4K from the original camera negative. It looked great and had a stellar cast, including Marlon Brando, and the film was part of the retrospective tribute to that star. Some friends saw a digital version of McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971), which I think is Robert Altman’s finest film. This had been restored in 4K from the original camera negative by Warner Bros. And a friend was impressed with a digital transfer of Shin Heike Monogatari (1955, Tales of the Taira Clan) with director Mizoguchi Kenji working in both colour.

Shin Heike Mongatari

Shin Heike Mongatari

I also saw a digital version of a little known film which deserves wider circulation. This was Déjà s’envole la fleur maigre (1960, one English title is From the Branches Drops the Withered Blossom). This was a documentary filmed by Paul Meyer which recorded the situation of Italian migrants who had moved to Belgium to work in the mines. The film was set in Borinage, setting for the earlier and famous film by Joris Ivens. Whilst at times observational it had complex, unconventional and often poetic treatment of the situation of these families. It was beautifully done but its critical stance meant the film/filmmaker was “ostracized and [Paul Meyer] basically forced out of film production.” It does not seem to have ever had a UK release, but now with a fine restoration from the original camera negatives [both 16mm and 35mm] it will hopefully screen here.

Other treats included several films restored by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project. These included a key film from the revolutionary period of Cuban cinema Memorias del Subdesarrollo / Memories of Underdevelopment (1968): an early film by Hou Hsiao-hsien, Feng gui lai de ren / The Boys from Fengkuei (1983): Edward Yang’s very fine Taipei Story (1985): and two documentaries by Chris Menges with Adrian Cowell, Raid into Tibet (1966) and Buddhism in Tibet (1966). There was another classic film restoration, Youssef Chahine’s Adieu Bonaparte (1985) a key film from this Egyptian director.

The 72nd International Federation of Film Archives Congress ran all through the Festival. Apart from the papers and discussions there was a presentation to Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, the Belgium filmmakers, with a screening of their 1996 film La Promesse. And there was the FIAF Film Restoration Summer School all week as well. I chatted to one of the participants: they worked hard all day with both practical and theoretical sessions and then they had a series of Festival screenings to take it. But she was still enjoying it. And there were the annual Festival Awards for  DVDs and Blu-Rays. This year the winners included discs of the work of Fredrick Wiseman, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Jacques Rivette and the BFI’s recent issue of Shooting Stars (1928).

So a very full week: and a hot week this year. But rewarding as well.

Hoje (Today, Brazil 2011)

Vera (Denise Varga) in her new kitchen with her mysterious visitor (César Troncoso)

Vera (Denise Varga) in her new kitchen with her mysterious visitor (César Troncoso)

As the title implies, this is a story about an important day. Vera moves into an apartment in São Paulo in 1998. She’s in her mid-40s, not unattractive but perhaps a little uncertain/worried and both elated and stressed because of the move. Certainly, she’s not wealthy or elegant and this is a large unfurnished apartment, light and airy and spacious. But like our heroine it’s also a little run-down and in need of an uplift.

Vera seems to have quite a lot of furniture, books and household goods and two removal men soon appear to bring everything up to the apartment. But suddenly another man appears in one of the rooms. Where as he come from? Vera clearly knows him, but who is he? It’s difficult to discuss this film without revealing crucial spoiler information about the narrative, but I’ll try. The mysterious man refers to Vera’s past and this is a story about the ‘disappeared’ of Brazil. In this sense the film belongs to that category of narratives found in several Latin American countries, each with a history of political repression. In Brazil under the military dictatorship of 1964-85 arrest, imprisonment and torture of dissidents was responsible for the ‘disappearance’ of many individuals. In 1995 the Brazilian Government admitted the violations of human rights in the dictatorship period and 300 families were compensated for the ‘disappearance’ of relatives via legislative action. At one point the director, Tata Amaral, takes the text of the legislation and plays it over the two actors as if it was being projected onto them. You can probably guess what this means.

Text projected onto the characters.

Text projected onto the characters.

Hoje was the only one of the four films I saw on the Brazilian Weekender at HOME which was not introduced. There is very little about it on IMDB or Wikipedia. It was released in Brazil in 2013 and won prizes at Brazilian and Argentinian festivals but apart from one page in Brazilian from which I’ve taken the images here, it is difficult to find out much. It doesn’t seem to have travelled to other festivals. IMDB suggests that the aspect ratio is 1.78:1 implying it was shot for TV (i.e. in the 16:9 format). It looked to me more like 1.85:1 but IMDB also suggests that it was financed by HBO Latin America. If it was intended more for television that might make sense. There is really only one main set (Vera does go down to the street below for two short sequences). It had something of the feel of a TV play about it although the script is adapted from a novel.

I enjoyed the film and especially Denise Varga’s performance. I was also struck by the set design and the cinematography (which both won prizes for Vera Hamburger and Jacob Solitrenick respectively). It was interesting to see a film about the personal stories associated with resistance to authoritarian regimes – and it is noticeable that the film was produced and released when the Workers’ Party held power in Brazil.

Yorimatã (Brazil 2014)

Luli (left and Lucina in the 1970s

Luli (left) and Lucina in the 1970s

In her second introduction of the Brazilian Weekender at HOME, Stephanie Dennison told us that music documentaries have been very popular in Brazil for the last few years and that Yorimatã was both critically and commercially successful in cinemas in 2015. She suggested that this was both surprising and encouraging since many audiences didn’t know about the two main subjects of the film – women who challenged conventional music industry ideas in the 1970s. This was my third documentary of the week and my second music documentary. Yorimatã has some things in common with Bayou Maharajah, but also several differences.

I don’t think I’ve seen a music documentary before in which all of the performers were unknown to me (apart from Gilberto Gil who makes a brief appearance). Coupled with my limited knowledge of Brazilian music styles this meant I found it a little difficult to discern the chronology of events. (The narrative is non-linear.) Other than that, however, I was captivated by the music and personalities of the two women who appear to have used just their first names – Luhli and Lucina – throughout their long careers. Here is the official trailer for Yorimatã which explains the title and introduces the story and the music. (The official website in Portuguese has some other interesting material, including the images used here.)

Luhli (sometimes Luli) and Lucina both began performing and recording in the 1960s as solo artists and with other performers. They got together in the early 1970s, forming a musical partnership that was exciting for them and for audiences and which lasted more than twenty years. They decided to become ‘independents’ and move away from the global music labels such as Philips and Polygram and took themselves off to live in the country – following, but in their own way, the similar trends in Europe and North America. The ‘music majors’ have always been global but, unlike Hollywood, they tend to put more effort into developing local ‘artists and repertoire’. They do so in conventional ways so Luhli and Lucina were seen as ‘radicals’. The living arrangements they made were also radical and ‘anti-conservative’ as they set up a family unit with photographer Luiz Fernando Borges da Fonseca. This three-way relationship was captured by Luiz and his archive of footage formed the basis for director Rafael Saar’s documentary (Saar is something of a specialist in music films). These archive clips are mixed with interviews, footage of the two women today, including recent performances with other musicians and archive clips of their earlier performances together.


The family in retreat

The 1970s performances and the home movie footage of life in their rural retreat provide perhaps the most appealing sequences – enhanced by the grainy and colour-degraded qualities of the blown-up images. I was trying to think of what the British or American equivalents might be but I realised that the social and political differences between Brazil and the ‘North’ would have been an important factor. These images from Brazil seem at the same time more ‘homely’ and frankly more fun than 1970s hippy communes as depicted in Anglo-American music culture – but also more of a challenge to society since Brazil was under an authoritarian military dictatorship which arrested and exiled some musicians whose politics were deemed unacceptable.

In musical terms, however, it’s interesting that Luhli and Lucina made familiar moves towards musical forms that were more ‘roots’ orientated and sometimes more ‘spiritual’. But they also went through a phase of electrifying their music and becoming more rock-orientated. At this point I thought about Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention and wondered how things might have been different if Sandy had had a close female collaborator and soulmate. The music of Luhli and Lucina remained in a Brazilian context and for musicologists there are references to samba and the ways in which African music and other foreign forms have been developed in a Brazilian context. The most surprising aspect of the women’s performances (apart from the appearance of the 10-string Brazilian guitar – viola caipira?) is their use of African drums (see the trailer above). We see them working to make these drums and the film begins and ends with a drumming performance.

I’m not sure if this film will get distribution outside Brazil (it did appear at Toronto) but I do hope somebody tries to make it happen. The sounds and images have stayed with me and audiences should get a lot from it. Some will enjoy the women’s strength and challenge to the social order. Others will enjoy the music. Everybody will get something from it. I’m very pleased to have had the opportunity to see it.

A more recent image of of Lucina (left) and Luhli

A more recent image of Lucina (left) and Luhli

Jonas e seu circo sem lona (Jonas and the Backyard Circus, Brazil 2015)

Jonas drumming up an audience for his backyard circus.

Jonas drumming up an audience for his backyard circus.

This film in HOME’s Brazilian Weekender turned out to be a documentary about what Stephanie Dennison in her Introduction referred to as a ‘small subject’. Professor Dennison leads on Brazilian film at the University of Leeds and the Weekender is a joint Leeds/Manchester University initiative with HOME’s festivals team. She suggested to us that often the Brazilian films that are seen abroad are about ‘big’ subjects or they are ‘exotic’ and strange/wonderful. She went on to suggest that with the swing to the right in Brazil what she thought was interesting about this film (apart from the technical skill on display) was its concern with public education – something that was an important part of the Workers’ Party agenda. Certainly the last two Brazilian films I’ve seen were Second Mother (Brazil 2015) and The Violin Teacher (Brazil 2015), both concerned with issues related to education.

The ‘striking technical skill’ here belongs to first-time documentary feature filmmaker Paula Gomes. She crafts an 83 minute film that takes its simple premise and presents it as accessibly as possible while maintaining a reasonable observational distance from its subject – though this is breached three times, but each time in an interesting and revealing way. The ‘Jonas’ of the title is a 13 year-old boy in the North-Eastern region of Bahia. He lives with his mother and grandmother, both of whom have had experience in the circus. If we are told about a father figure, I missed it in the subtitles. However, we do learn that Jonas has an uncle who is still operating a circus in the region.

The ‘plot’ of the documentary sees Jonas using a holiday period to devise a circus performance with his friends in his mother’s backyard. His mother tolerates this (and his grandma encourages it) but the mother’s concern is to see Jonas succeed at school. Jonas has the skills and the commitment to ‘make a go’ of the circus but his friends in the neighbourhood don’t share his need to be a performer and although they ‘muck in’ and enjoy themselves, they gradually drift away. Meanwhile, Jonas is only a peripheral figure at school – knuckling down only when the camera is on him. The filmmaker appears briefly in one scene reflected in the mirror in Jonas’ bedroom when his mother tries to wake him to send him to school. More importantly perhaps the director is addressed in one scene by the headteacher who tells her that her film is a bad idea since it gets in the way of Jonas and his schoolwork. This seems a little unfair, but it’s good to see some concern over the boy’s education. The closing credits include another line of dialogue directed to the filmmaker but I won’t spoil what is a pretty good joke.

For me, the technical and artistic success of the film is based on an ‘intimate’ camera style which brings us into the world of Jonas and his friends and family without ever being ‘exploitative’. There are many close-ups, mainly of faces. It is indeed an impressive first feature. Jonas is an engaging young man and his mother and grandmother are equally interesting characters. The classroom scenes suggest that working class education in Brazil is a real issue and I’m reminded that one of the great education thinkers was Paulo Friere who came from Recife in the neighbouring region of Pernambuco. The turn to the right in Brazilian politics is bad news for the working class.