The 26th edition of Il Cinema Ritrovato is over—like the end of a dream. If you are lucky enough, and not so fond of sleeping and eating, and also have little social bonds that allow you the minimum of lingering with fellow cinephiles, then you would be able to see only 10 percent of the films shown at the festival. As much as it's a festival of discovery and cinephilia, it’s also a festival of guilt and regrets since you ineluctably miss many things.
Il Cinema Ritrovato is a miniature of life that among all the beautiful things you have to choose, and every decision grants you a piece of the truth. But all the images, all the pieces of this broken mirror in which we see ourselves is as valid as what the person next to me, watching another film and experiencing another journey, sees. In this manner, cinephilia becomes a lifestyle mostly associated with the hidden truth in the moving images, and the role of cinephile is an endless quest to put together the broken pieces. It is a time machine that simply activates by turning off the lights.
So any kind of round-up is unavoidably limited to one person’s vision and his or her chance in taking what is offered on this most generous of the cinematic banquets. Still, naming the highlights—regardless of the listomania of a cinephile which aims to reduce, categorize and canonize—might help to understand where I am standing after a week at the movies:
I cannot think of any scene more touching than the night at the piazza full of people, teenagers sitting with their bicycles lying on the hot ground, and lovers hand in hand, watching the restored La grande illusion. But this gorgeous restoration from La Cinémathèque de Toulouse, based on the original camera negative, has already reached many major cities in Europe and North America (I saw it recently at the BFI), so my favourite restoration of Il Cinema Ritrovato 2012 was the third restoration of the Rossellini Project which as its title suggests aims to revive the films made by the grand maestro of Italian cinema: Viaggio in Italia.
The night of the opening, Gianni Amelio passionately presented the film in the fully packed Arlecchino cinema and paid tribute to the film by stating that it is the film which taught him how to make cinema. The marvellous restoration reveals how few grey shades have been used in the film, and how most of the scenes are created in bold contrasts between black and white; an illuminating journey into love and affection on one hand and death and oblivion on the other.
Nothing is new. That’s the first lesson you learn on a daily basis at Il Cinema Ritrovato. You always see a scene, check the dates, and immediately learn that a certain practice is by far prior to what film history books have suggested. For me, that moment of revelation happened during the screening of La moglie di Claudio (Gero Zambuto, 1918) which presents the innovative side of early Italian cinema. The film opens with a shot in which a spider metamorphoses into the face of a spy, a dissolve seven years later used by Eisenstein in October. Many lessons we have learned from Scandinavian and Russian cinema of the late 1910s and 1920s can be traced in Italian films of the same period.
Most of us are familiar with the only Italian film of Max Ophüls, but as far as I know, not many were aware of a Dutch Ophüls: Komedie om geld. Made in 1936, it is a musical comedy directly addressing the depression era: Berkeley via Brecht made in Holland. This fantasy of the fall and the rise of a bureaucrat during the economical crisis of the 1930s is masterfully shot by Eugen Schüfftan, and Ophüls’ sophisticated criticism of hypocrisy and deceit deserves to be known by more people.
The First Born
Maud Nelissen, Neil Brand, Antonio Coppola, Timothy Brock, John Sweeney, and Gabriel Thibaudeau were accompanying silent screenings during the festival. They were all magnificent professionals. How can I forget Donald Sosin’s ad lib Indian singing while he was playing piano for Raoul Walsh’s The Mystery of Hindu Image (1914)?
But for the imaginative interpretation of moods and spaces and single-handedly creating amazing musical textures for recently the rediscovered-restored The First Born (Miles Mander, 1928), Stephen Horne should be hailed. He incorporated flute, accordion, keyboard, bell, and foot-tap into his performance, usually playing one instrument with one hand, and with the other hand giving more ambiance sound the score.
Forty years ago when Raoul Walsh’s colourful autobiography, Each Man in His Time, was published, Gregory Peck called the man “one of the last of nature’s noblemen.” For all the excitement, sheer beauty and profoundly liberal career of Walsh which connects the early cinema to the post-auteur age (his last film was made in 1964), his films provided the golden moments of the festival:
Pillars of Society (1916) an adaptation of Ibsen’s play, directed with a Griffithian sensibility and a deliberate attack to the corrupt foundations of a hypocritical society, was one of the early gems. The leading character’s redemption and subsequent return to true values of a society in order is seen only through an engagement in hazardous acts—a key theme to the fourteen Walsh shown at Il Cinema Ritrovato. Kindred of the Dust (1922) was nothing less than a masterpiece which to some degree is still indebted to the intense melodramatic lessons of an earlier film like Pillars, but because of showing sacrifice without sentimentalizing it, and focusing on the cruelness of the clash among social classes without judging any side, is a unique film in the history of American cinema. What Price Glory (1926) was a glorious piece of filmmaking, influenced by the rhythmic structure of shots and scenes as well as the anti-war theme of the King Vidor’s The Big Parade; and Me and My Gal (1932), “Walsh’s best film” (according to Manny Farber), exploded across the whole theatre.
Jean Grémillon. My first encounter with this poet of despair and solitude was with the sublime Gueule d'amour around 6 years ago. Since then my passion for the man and his films has kept growing and the result was two long essays in Farsi/Persian about the director who made Lumière d'été and Le ciel est à vous. This edition of Il Cinema Ritraovato justly put his films on the map of French film history and art cinema. Here, strange and utterly pessimist films such as L'étrange Monsieur Victor (1938) and Pattes blanches (1948) saw the light of the screen in the English (and Italian) language world for the very first time. Watching the sad and hauntingly unforgettable documentary Le 6 juin à l'aube (1944-45) was another discovery in the Grémillon retrospective whose juxtapositions of images from bombardments, ruins, and graves could have taught some lessons to Alain Resnais and Chris Marker.
At the end of July, Criterion will release a “Jean Grémillon during the Occupation” boxed-set with three essential films of that era (though, one, Remorques, was made before the Occupation but was shown after Nazi invasion, and later was banned, because its star Jean Gabin fled to the US).
The ritrovato (meaning discovery) is over. Great films will be back into the can and new friends will fly home. The medieval city mysteriously closes its secret gates and you find yourself outside the enclosed world which has come out of an Umberto Eco novel (who is also a resident of Bologna).
In my last day, Jonathan Rosenbaum and I were sitting on the steps of the Arlecchino cinema, listening to the Coleman Hawkins’ magisterial Bird of Prey Blues on Jonathan’s iPhone. That moment made me think that the whole concept of cinephilia and the film festival is like a long jam session that first you are scared to start, then you are excited to carry on, and finally, sad to leave; in between, elements of improvisation and teamwork give you the utmost satisfaction and remind you how people and movies are inseparable and interconnected in the ritual a cinephile undertaking. And events like this are not only film festivals or gathering of movie people, but a form of cultural resistance, otherwise they will lose their meaning very soon.