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.
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.
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.
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.