This International Festival of silent film once again attracted archivists, collectors, film fans and academics to Pordenone and to the new Verdi Cinema in Pordenone. About a thousand people, plus townspeople for the popular titles, viewed a varied and at times very high quality programme from early cinema. It was a week in which it rained a couple of times and later days were a little chillier than usual. But, of course, we spent most time in the cinema and otherwise in restaurants and bars catching up with friends and colleagues.
The major events were star vehicles with famous names. The opening night presented Greta Garbo and Conrad Nagel in The Mysterious Lady (M-G-M 1928). This was one of the fine Photoplay Productions’ prints which Kevin Brownlow has collected over the years. The film was accompanied with music by the long-time collaborator Carl Davis. Nagel played a young, not too bright Austrian officer, but he was attractive and romantic. Garbo’s expression of passion was luminous. The plot was rather ordinary; spies, deceits, revelations and a final resolution at the border.
Mid-week we had a European star, Ivan Mosjoukine. He was one of the ‘white’ Russian émigrés who ended up in Paris after the Revolution and Civil War. Kean ou Désordre et Génie (Edmund Kean, Prince Among Lovers Films Albatros 1924) was an adaptation of a play by Alexandre Dumas [père] about the great C19th English actor. The play and film concentrated on Kean’s later career and a relationship with a married and aristocratic lady, Countess Elena de Koefeld (Nathalie Lissenko). Mosjoukine’s representation of Kean was impressive and the film was well staged and had some fine stylistic sequences. The film has been restored by the Cinémathèque française on a 35mm print. The print also had quality tinting, the work of the Jan Ledecky Laboratory. This was one of the finest visual treats of the week.
The final night presented the iconic star Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad (United Artists 1924). The film had been transferred to DCP, though this was well done. The accompaniment was a reconstruction of the original score commissioned by Fairbanks from Mortimer Wilson and arranged and synchronised for the present version by Mark Fitz-Gerald. This was typical and splendid Fairbanks. He was as graceful as ever though the plot was at time silly and did little justice to the original source. The film had stunning settings and designs, the work of William Cameron Menzies, who went on to many other fine productions and was the first recipient of the first Academy Award for Art Direction in 1928. There were a number of silent features during the week featuring his work in the 1920s.
One of these was Tempest (United Artists 1928). This featured a relationship between John Barrymore (Sergeant Ivan Markov) and Camilla Horn (Princess Tamara). This was set against the background of World War I and the eruption of the great revolution in 1917. Not surprisingly the characterisations bore little relationship to the historical reality. The film fitted into what seemed an unofficial programme of pre-revolutionary stories, possibly a prequel to revolutionary films in 1917. They mainly offered a fairly reactionary stance on the Revolution but, fortunately, we also had a bona fide Soviet history: Esfir Shub’s seminal compilation documentary, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty / Padenie Dinastii Romanovykh (Sovkino 1927).
One of the films set in pre-revolutionary Russia was The Cossack Whip (Edison 1916). The film was directed by John Collins, a little known filmmaker who was the subject of a mini-retrospective. The Cossack Whip had fine mise en scène and exceptional editing for the period. The film also painted a picture of the brutality of the Tsarist regime with relatively sympathetic revolutionaries, though the conventional ending had the heroine arriving in the USA. The films tended to have Viola Dana, to whom Collins was married, in the lead role. There were two fine dramas set in the rural world, The Girl Without a Soul (Metro Picture Corp. 1917) and Blue Jeans (Metro Picture Corp. 1917), with excellent use of country settings.
We also had a teen serial from Pathé Exchange (USA). This was Who’s Guilty?, produced and released in 1916 in 14 episodes. The basic premise was a melodrama developed around an issue of crime and morality. The endings tended to be downbeat and appropriately the surviving reels were discovered in the Gosfilmofond archives. Pre-war Russian audiences were keen on ‘doom and gloom’. Overall the serial was well done and the moral questions intriguing: there was one fine episode which dramatised the violent industrial relations of the period. A recurring sequence was a scene where the male protagonist was involved in a fight with the nominal villain. Such physical conflicts seemed to be another unofficial theme of the week.
The most gripping fight was in Behind the Door (Famous Players Lasky 1919). Oscar Krug (Hobart Bosworth) seemed to be the only German-American in a small town when the USA declared war on Germany. He proved he was ‘American’ by fighting Jim MacTavish (Jim Gordon) when the townspeople grow riotous in front of his taxidermy store. He then enrolled in the navy. This was an anti-German melodrama personified by Wallace Beery’s submarine commander.
Fortunately there were also features where Europeans were not the main villains. The Guns of Loos (Stoll Picture Productions 1928) pictured the British front in World War I. The film drama was built round a shell shortage that occurred in 1915. The drama moved from a munitions factory in England to the Western Front. What stood out was the élan of the front line conflict. The film ably inter-cut models and recreated settings with dynamic camerawork.
After the fine Les Misérables last year we had the same director, Henri Fescourt, adapting Alexandre Dumas [père] classic novel [The Count of] Monte-Christo (Louis Malpas 1929). This novel lacks the substance of Victor Hugo’s classic but it is full of splendid action sequences. The film version enjoyed fine production values and there were many memorable sequences, especially in Marseilles harbour and with the escape by Edmond Dantès from the Chateau d’If. The film was screened from a DCP, but enjoyed a good transfer.
The Canon Revisited included Maurice Stiller’s fine Erotikon (AB Svensk Filmindustri 1920). The film was a risqué comedy for the period. It included some happily satirical sequence in the Professor’s laboratory and a meaningful sequence with a ballet performance at the Royal Opera House. And we enjoyed the familiar but very fine Yasujiro Ozu film I was born, but … / Otona no miru ehon (Shochiku 1932).
‘Rediscoveries and Restorations’ included Algol. Tragödie der Macht (Deutsche Lichtbild-Gesellschaft 1920). The film, screened at an earlier Giornate, had been restored and was presented on a DCP. This was a combination of drama, science fiction and fantasy. The film had early use of what became the expressionist style on film.
A substantial and fresh programme was ‘Polish Silents: National Identity meets International Inspiration’. There were newsreels, documentaries including a ‘City Symphony’, animation and feature dramas. Pan Tadeusz (Star-Film 1928) was a film version of an epic poem central to Polish identity. The existing film [screened from a DCP] is incomplete, so it was tricky to follow. The film that struck me most in this programmer was Mocny Człowiek (A Strong Man, Gloria 1929). In the film an ill-fated writer stole the manuscript of a friend and colleague. The style of the film embraced fast and at points discontinuous editing and a powerful expressionist feel.
The programme also included a substantial number of short films. I particularly enjoyed three early Shakespearean adaptations from Film d’Arte Italiana and featuring the diva Francesca Bertini. There were the one-reel Re Lear (1910) and Il Mercante di Venezia (1910). These used open-air locations, in the case of the latter Venice itself. The third film was a two-reel versions Romeo e Giulietta (1912).
There was early British film with a programme of ‘The Magic Films of Robert W. Paul’. What stood out about Paul was his technical inventiveness at a very early stage in the development of cinema. Another programme of early short films was ‘U.S. Presidential Election Films 1896 – 1924’. These included William McKinley up to Woodrow Wilson. with a number featuring Teddy Roosevelt.
There were three programmes of ‘Beginnings of the Westerns’ continuing a presentation started in 2015. We had ‘Cowboy Films’ from 1912 and 1913, a second programme ‘Cowgirl Films’ and a third programme with ‘Indian Pictures’ or Native-Americans.
We had animation with Africa Before Dark (Universal Pictures 1928), an early Disney cartoon with animal characters and several examples of ‘Early Japanese Animation’ featuring Momotaro, an early and popular super-hero accompanied by three faithful assistants, a monkey, a dog and a pheasant.
As ever at the Giornate much of the pleasure was due to the excellent musical accompaniment. There were some stand-out performances both by visiting orchestras and by the team of regular pianists. The organisation, as in previous years, was very good: both in the Verdi Theatre and in the Festival provision. David Robinson, who retired last year, received a presentation for his contribution to so many Giornate. The new Director Jay Weissberg made a positive start. This was a full and enjoyable programme.
One minor flaw in the week was the use by some in the audiences of electronic gizmos, which I reckoned were slightly up on last year. The Theatre staff identified and stopped some miscreants but the main auditorium has large blocks of seats and the offenders were often seated in the middle or a row. A friend suggested that the top balcony be turned into a ‘sin bin’ and offenders banished up there with the gods. One possible response would be for the Festival to replace the printed title projected on the bottom of the screen before programmes with a full-screen warnings about this. Another would be for the audience members to be more pro-active and to tell people to turn off the offending machine. To assist in the latter here are the seven deadly vices of mobile phones/tablet users and their corresponding virtues.
Taking pictures and even moving images of the films during screenings as opposed to turning the gadget off and buying the DVD or looking on the Web.
Making or receiving calls instead of placing the cell phone in silent mode or switching it off.
Using phones or tablets to send and/or receive messages instead of doing this later outside the Theatre.
Using cell phones or tablets to check matters on the Web or similar instead of reading the excellent notes in the Festival Catalogue.
Using tablets or computers to take notes during films instead of following the guidelines on taking notes in the dark.
Using a tablet or cell phone as a torch and waving the beam round instead of keeping it below knee height and changing the white light for a coloured bulb.
Checking the time on a cell phone or tablet instead of reading the programme beforehand and noting the running time.
The first of two Egyptian films in my selection, In the Last Days of the City proved to be fascinating – perhaps not the easiest start to my festival viewing but certainly a film I’ve thought about a lot since. Produced, written and directed by Tamer El Said, it’s an independent film that has taken several years to make and now emerges as an almost documentary record of a particular district of Cairo before the Arab Spring of 2011. In the Q&A after the screening, the director and his lead actor Khalid Abdalla referred to a film that was “made with foresight” and “edited in hindsight” – preparations began in 2009 with shooting spread over 30 months and a long period of editing.
Khalid (the actor uses his own name) is a thirty-something filmmaker in Cairo attempting to complete a film. It wasn’t clear to me exactly what kind of film it is intended to be, but it includes footage of people he knows and it is inspired by material sent to him by filmmaker friends who are in Baghdad, Berlin and Beirut. At one point he meets these friends in Cairo. At other times he finds himself looking around the city and coming across isolated incidents – police beating demonstrators, a man assaulting a woman. At these moments we feel a sense of unease at Khalid’s seeming voyeurism.
The film draws on the repertoire of films about filmmaking. Khalid has several problems. He falls out with the editor who is trying to complete post production in his flat. Khalid is also being forced out of the flat and must pack his books and household goods and search for a new place to live, not helped by a ‘useless’ estate agent. One of his subjects for his film is his ex-girlfriend who seems increasingly reluctant to help him out. Khalid’s mother is in hospital and he tries to see her on a regular basis.
The filmmaking process for Tamer El Said began with the intent to create a fiction and then slid into reality. The director used his own flat as one of the film’s locations and did then find himself forced to move. The scenes on the street did pick up the tension in Cairo before 2011. The status of the film now before us is uncertain, fiction bleeds into reality and vice versa. What is most striking are the formal properties of the filmic image. So, with an image on the computer screen, the camera zooms in and we are taken into the ‘fictional world’ on screen – but this is revealed to be the ‘real world’ of Khalid’s friends. The same can happen in reverse of course. ‘What is real?’ is an age-old question in cinema. Here though it takes on a new urgency as major changes are taking place in Egyptian society. Two observations are important. First, we are seeing only a small part of the city from a middle-class perspective (i.e. not necessarily wealthy but educated/artistic/cultured) and secondly the beautifully composed images by Bassem Fayad seem to convey the sadness of a city approaching turmoil implied by the title. This is certainly a festival film that will be a difficult sell for cinema distribution. It’s important though that this kind of Egyptian independent film gets seen internationally and broadens the perspective offered by different forms of Egyptian popular cinema.
The Reunion was presented in the comfortable surroundings of the Ciné Lumière in South Kensington – an excellent cinema and one I wish I could attend more frequently. I enjoyed the film but it was only later that I began to wonder about the Spanish title which has all kinds of possible interpretations. The writer-director Jonás Trueba is known for three previous features, all seen as ‘festival films’ centring on relationships but geared towards character studies rather than plot. The characters are often roughly the same age as the director so here a couple in their early 30s meet for the first time in 15 years. Then, they were still at school and experiencing first love, now Manuela (Itsaso Arana) lives in Buenos Aires and has returned as a visitor to Madrid at Christmas. She has contacted Olmo (Francesco Carril) and when they meet she hands him a letter. We don’t find out until later exactly what the letter contains but we follow the couple to a restaurant and then to a gig in a bar where Manuela’s father (played by singer-songwriter Rafael Berrio) is performing. After switching to another bar, they are invited to a private dancing club. In the early hours of the morning Olmo heads for home – the flat he shares with his partner Clara, an academic psychiatrist. He wakes Clara by accident and she quizzes him before he falls asleep. The last section of the film features his dream about the time when he and Manuela first met and we learn how the letter he was given at the beginning of the evening was first written.
I don’t think I’ve spoilt any narrative pleasure in revealing the structure of the film. Most audiences will be more interested in the interactions between the characters than the sequence of events. The Hollywood Reporter‘s reviewer is not particularly sympathetic to the film, suggesting it is too slow, but he does reference Eric Rohmer as a possible model. Rohmer seems a good shout and the Spanish press reports on the film include comments about the director’s seeming interest in la nouvelle vague. We slowly learn about each character – the flirtatious Manuela and the more reserved Olmo. He is a translator and would-be writer, she is an actress who tells him that since she’s been in Madrid she’s had a different partner each night. There must be something that keeps Olmo interested (besides the fact that Manuela is so attractive).
To return to the title, ‘La Reconquista’ generally refers to Iberian history and the long struggle by Christians to recover the lands occupied by Moorish invaders between the 8th and 15th centuries. Why then choose this title? I haven’t worked that out yet but it suggests something different to ‘Reunion’ in English. Trueba himself emphasises that it is not just the meeting but the ‘recovery’ of the time they had together? I’m also slightly baffled by a reference to a Patricia Highsmith novel, The Suspension of Mercy (known in Spanish as Crímenes imaginarios) made by the 15 year-old Olmo. It’s only a couple of weeks since I saw the last of several European film adaptations of Highsmith novels and they are all ‘disturbing’ in one way or another and the reference here seems to contradict the tone of the narrative – or at least to suggest a whole new facet of the relationship. I need to see La Reconquista again to get my head round these references. I should also add that the music performances are presented in such a way that they are directed to Olmo and Manuela – one is a song Manuela’s father had written around the time the couple first met.
In the Q&A after the film, the director told us that the film has struggled to find an audience on its Spanish release despite good reviews – so I might find re-watching it difficult in the UK. I think there will always be an audience for this kind of intelligent cinema, but it may be too small to sustain a cinema release. But do try to catch it if it turns up. I’ll be looking for Jonás Trueba at future festivals.
Spanish trailer (no EST):
Hedi was shown in the ‘First Feature’ section of the LFF programme, following awards for the film itself and the lead actor at Berlin earlier this year. It’s a relatively simple and straightforward narrative lifted by strong performances by each of the leads. ‘Hedi’ is a young man in his mid-twenties who is suffering from a protective and controlling mother and the pressure of a more successful older brother who has migrated to France. Hedi is currently working as a sales rep for a Peugeot dealer in a small town outside Tunis. Following the terrorist attack at a resort in Sousse in 2015, business is slow but Hedi is nevertheless sent out to ‘prospect’ for new customers.
Stuck with a soul-destroying job, Hedi is also faced with his mother’s arrangements for his marriage to a young woman from a wealthy local family. Hedi and his bride-to-be are forced to meet secretly in his car but, even so, he hardly knows her as the wedding date approaches. The ‘inciting incidents’ in the narrative are the decision by Hedi’s boss to send him on a prospecting tour when he should have time off for the wedding preparations – and the arrival of the older brother back from France.
Staying in a tourist hotel during his ‘prospecting’, Hedi decides to abandon the fruitless task of contacting potential clients and instead to enjoy himself. In so doing, and in a well-handled series of encounters, he links up with one of the entertainers at the hotel. Rym is one of a troupe who put on shows for the small group of German tourists. She’s a few years older than Hedi and has travelled widely. His mother’s (and brother’s) plans for Hedi are seriously challenged.
Hedi, as played by Majd Mastoura, is at first a placid and rather solemn young man who begins to open up with the vivacious and confident Rym. It isn’t hard to see the film, written and directed by Mohamed Ben Attia, as having a metaphorical quality. Tunisia post the 2011 revolution is still on the cusp of the move from tradition to modernity. The impact of migration/travel to Europe as a modernising force is presented in the contrast between Rym as a liberal figure and the older brother whose contact with European culture has created a different kind of mix. Hedi himself has a passion for drawing which has the potential to fund a different kind of life – but which is mocked by his mother. I’m not sure if Hedi will make it into UK distribution, but it is appearing in the Leeds International Film Festival in November and is definitely worth trying to catch. Since it is co-produced by the Dardenne Brothers’ company, Les Films du Fleuve, perhaps there is a chance of distribution in different European countries.