35mm films at the Leeds International Film Festival


Through a Glass Darkly

I counted eleven films screening in their original format of 35mm at this year’s Festival. Despite the claims of commercial managers film originated on celluloid tend to look better in that format. It actually requires around 6K digital to match the quality of good 35m prints. And the characteristics of digital are somewhat different from celluloid. Nick Wrigley sets out one key factor in an article in Sight & Sound (December 2012), ‘Crimes against the grain’. Celluloid is composed of silver halide grains, whilst the Digital formats are composed of pixels. Their response to light differs. Modern DCP’s are treated to reproduce the look of grain, but frequently the ‘look’ still differs. One noticeable aspect can be the diminution of definition in long shots. Of course, quality requires good prints and good projection. This has usually been the case with Festival screenings up to now.

One of the retrospective programmes in the Festival is devoted to the Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. All of the four films and one of the two documentaries are to be presented on 35m. The other documentary, Trespassing Bergman (2013), was probably produced on digital.

My cinematic youth was filled with the films of Bergman, and other European filmmakers like Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, and Andrzej Wajda. They remain powerfully present in my memory, but they have also rewarded revisiting in recent years.

Through a Glass Darkly (Sâsom I en spegel, 1961) is the earliest film on show. It is part of a cycle of films described by one critic as ‘chamber works’. It is, for me, one of the two or three finest films directed by Bergman. The film is set on a remote island and involves a small family group. It is an intense drama but with moment of lighter lyricism. Persona (1966) focuses tightly on a convalescing actress and her nurse. It includes some of the most avant-garde techniques found in Bergman’s output and ends with an ambiguous but enthralling set of lap dissolves. The Shame (Skammen, 1968) has a familiar intense relationship at its centre but also broadens out into a study of the effects of violence and war. The Passion of Anna (En Passion, 1969) is the only one of these features in colour. In this film a series of close relationships develop, as a series of violent acts are perpetrated on helpless animals.

Bergman is generally considered an auteur, but like most really talented directors he relies on a carefully selected group of collaborators. All of these films were photographed by Sven Nykvist, one of the outstanding cinematographers in world cinema. All of the films are edited by Ulla Ryghe and three of them have Production Design by P. A. Lindgren, and the last two films have Sound by Lennart Engholm. More familiar are the Bergman ‘stock company’ of actors, some of the finest in world cinema in this period. Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullman turn up three times in these films. And we will also be able to see Bibi Andersson and Gunnar Björnstrand twice: with appearances by Harriet Anderson and Erland Josephson.

The other regular in Bergman’s films is the Island of Fårö. You will see it as the regular location in these films and it is also where Bergman made his home. Fårö Dokument was made for Swedish Television in 1969. This is both a portrait of the island and of the inhabitants, at a time when contemporary changes were impacting on the island communities.

Welcome Mr. Marshall

Welcome Mr. Marshall

A rather different tone from the intensity of Bergman will be found in several Spanish films directed by Luis García Berlanga.  Welcome Mr Marshall (Bienvenido, Mr Marshall, 1952) is a black and white satire from the years of the Franco Dictatorship. Because of the extreme censorship the film had to tread carefully, but it offers a sardonic look at the operation of Spanish government and bureaucrats. The Mr Marshal in question is the USA Aid programme for war-recovering Europe. This was one of the most successful Spanish films of the 1950s.

That Happy Couple (Esa pareja feliz, 1953) was jointly directed by Luis García Berlanga and Juan Antonio Bardem, both subjects of retrospectives at the Festival. This is a black and white comedy set round winning a sweepstake – a regular plot device in genre films of the period. It is found in Italian films of the 1950s and Berlanga’s films in particular show the influence of the Neo-realist movement in that country.

Plácido (1961) is a black and white black comedy. The film satirises the gulf between rich and poor and is set on the eve of the Christmas celebrations. The Executioner (El Verdugo, 1963) is another black and white satire. The film suffered cuts by the Francoist censors but still manages to generate ‘gallows’ humour when an undertaker’s assistant marries an executioner’s daughter.

The Day of the Beast (1995) is a much more recent black comedy directed by Alex de la Iglesia and made in colour. Also set in the Christmas celebrations this uses the idea of the Anti-Christ to generate ‘politically incorrect’ comedy. Inglesia also enjoys a retrospective at the Festival.

The Trouble with Money (Komedia om Geld, 1936) is a rare film from the early European period in the career of Max Ophuls. It was produced in black and white for the Cinetone Company in Amsterdam. Ophuls is regarded as a great stylist, especially in his use of editing and the moving camera. But there are also recurring themes in his films: as in La Ronde (1950) there is a narrative figure for this story of the travails of a poor bank clerk. And like the later Madame De… (1953) relationships are intertwined with commodities, in this case an amount of missing money.

Given the sometime unreliability of UK distributors it will be wise to check in advance if the 35mm print in question has arrived. And there may be more treats of this format at the Festival. The Hyde Park Picture House is screening Comfort and Joy (1984) as part of its Open Day. The film is not listed as a 35mm print in the Brochure but when it was the Xmas screening at the Hyde Park we saw a fairly good 35mm print.


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