Buon giorno everyone! It’s Max with another report from beautiful Bologna. Before I get into what I’ve been seeing, I think I should take a moment to explain what the festival is all about.Part 2 of 3. (Back to Part 1, Skip to Part 3)
This is the twenty-sixth year of Il Cinema Ritrovato. Unlike festivals like Cannes, Venice, or Toronto, which focus on new films with occasional screenings of older films, Il Cinema Ritrovato focuses on the past, looking at films ritrovati e restaurati (rediscovered and restored). There are no awards (except for a ceremony celebrating the best DVD/Blu-Ray releases of the last year) and none of the excess of other festivals. Here in Bologna, it’s all about the festival, the movies, and the symposiums. People travel from all over the world to be here to have the opportunity to see certain films on the big screen that they would otherwise not be able to. A large percentage of the newly restored films that play here are actually restored by Cineteca Bologna, a world leader in film preservation and restoration. Each year, the Cineteca decides on several subjects to focus the festival on, and from there, they decide what films to show. For this year, they’ve decided to turn their focus on the filmmakers Raoul Walsh, Lois Weber, and Jean Gremillon, silent musicals (yes, they do exist), early Japanese talkies, Alma Hitchcock, and films that focus on the effects of the stock market crash of 1929, amongst others. In addition, they have programs that are the same year after year, such as looking back at films from a century ago (this year was a selection of films made in 1912, mostly from Italy), a focus on Charlie Chaplin, and screenings of the big, new restorations. Unfortunately, we arrived after the festival had begun, so we missed two of the most important restorations that screened here (the extended cut of Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America and The Archers’ The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), but we did get the chance to see a bunch of other great stuff, as you’ll see below.
After almost 36 hours of traveling, we finally arrived in Bologna, and the next morning, we were all up early to get a head start on watching films. While I had a multitude of choices, I decided to start my festival off with a silent classic: the 1924 version of The Thief of Bagdad. This is not the 1940 film of the same title released by Criterion a couple of years ago. Instead, this is the Douglas Fairbanks classic. Though I’ve seen clips of the film in various classes I’ve taken over the years, I’ve never actually seen it all the way through, and the film did not disappoint. It’s clear from his very first appearance why Fairbanks was one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. He’s unbelievably charming and charismatic, commanding the screen. Though the film runs over 2 ½ hours, it flies by thanks to a fantastic plot, amazing special effects, and colorful characters. The sets are stunning, big and bold with a slight hint of German Expressionism to them. After Thief, I stuck around the Arlecchino (one of the five theatres in Bologna that the festival uses) to see Raoul Walsh’s Distant Drums, a Western starring Gary Cooper that takes place in 1840s Florida. Though Cooper was a tremendous actor, he’s more or less wasted here in what is not a very good film (not to mention the rather terrible quality of the print). In addition to the screenings, there are a number of symposiums here at the festival, so I next made my way to a discussion of the recent restoration of Jean Renoir’s masterpiece The Grand Illusion, which we would be seeing the following night. Being the tech/restoration geek that I am, getting to hear about this important film’s restoration from the people responsible for it was incredible. They talked about how the original nitrate negative made its way back to Toulouse Cinematheque from Moscow in the mid-1970s, how the new restoration was struck from that negative, and the various cuts that had been made to the film over the years for each re-release (the 1946 release cut an entire love story from the plot because the woman was German, and with the release coming just after the end of World War II, the distributor decided they did not want to show Germans in a positive light). This new version is the original, 1937 cut of the film, and when we saw it the following evening, it looked nothing short of amazing. Following that panel, I went back to the hotel, took a brief nap, then had dinner with friends, and then went to the Piazza Maggiore in the center of town, where the festival erects a gargantuan movie screen to show the biggest films of the festival each night at 10 PM (for those of you who’ve never seen a film outdoors, I’d highly recommend it). That night was the screening of the new restoration of Roman Polanski’s Tess, an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles (the film is dedicated to his late wife Sharon Tate, who was a fan of the book and believed her husband would make a spectacular adaptation of it). The film certainly isn’t for everyone (it’s long and rather slow paced), but for those who can handle it, there is much to love. The film’s cinematography is nothing short of stunning, reminiscent of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon in its use of natural light. The production design, costuming, and direction are all top notch. The restoration is beautiful, breathing new life into an already amazing film.
The next day began with more Raoul Walsh, a triple feature in fact. It was Wild Girl, followed by Kindred of the Dust, followed by Pursued, all of which I enjoyed. After that, I spent a couple of hours watching some avant-garde filmmaking (thanks to my film studies education at UC Berkeley, I’m actually quite a fan), seeing two films by Andy Warhol (Face and The Velvet Underground in Boston), one by Samuel Beckett, and one by Norman Mailer. I found each of them fascinating for different reasons. Face is 66 minutes of Edie Sedgwick in close-up, listening to music and getting ready to go out. The first 25 minutes or so are enrapturing. Edie doesn’t say a word, she just goes about her business, and she seems like a canvas upon which anything can be created. After she starts talking, however, the movie just isn’t the same. The Velvet Underground in Boston was not what I was expecting (but then again, why would I expect a standard concert doc from someone like Andy Warhol). Instead of focusing on the band, he focuses on the experience of being at the concert, with his camera focused on the lights and the concertgoers. Samuel Beckett’s Film was something I’d wanted to see for years and it did not disappoint. The film is impeccable thanks to the amazing crew that worked on it. The connection between images to create meaning and emotion was powerful, and the revelation at the end of who the man is managed to surprise me, even though I knew who he was before the film even started. After that was the showing of The Grand Illusion, which, like I mentioned earlier, was amazing.
That was the first half of my time here at the festival. Check in tomorrow for an update on the final three days, which included the world premiere screening of the new restoration of one of the greatest films ever made.