Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Hunting For Hidden Gold by Moen Mohamed


The annual gathering of classic cinema worshippers was once again a resounding success.  To have an entire festival devoted to the revival of cinema past, with many restorations, retrospectives and one-of-a-kind programming​, it is hard for Il Cinema Ritrovato (Cinema Rediscovered) to have an average, much less weak year.  It is indeed a festival of treasures.  As our modern age has gone almost completely digital, it is a special treat to have films projected in glorious  35mm.  Many of the prints are imported from archives and film institutions.  Beautiful and pristine were the DCP restorations of Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight) (Orson Welles, 1965), Richard III (Laurence Olivier, 1955), Il Miracolo (Roberto Rossellini, 1948), Rome Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945), La Pointe-Courte (Agnes Varda, 1955), Borom Sarret (Ousmane Sembene, 1963).  As much as this is a festival that looks back on the history of cinema, it also serves as a reminder as to where we are presently in contemporary cinema.  Is the progress of modern cinema extraneous and independent from methods of the past?

​This year, yet another unsung director was given the spotlight - the Films of Allan Dwan are refreshingly witty and bursting with energy.  Like the Jean Grémillon showcase in 2012, I wondered again how is it that I never heard about Dwan although he has directed hundreds of film.  The 2013 edition focused on the films of 1913, Vittorio de Sica (Actor & Director), European Cinemascope, Pre-War 1938-1939, Silent Films by Hitchcock in brand new 35mm restorations, 60s Czech Cinema, 1930s Japanese Cinema, Homage to Burt Lancaster and Russian pioneer Olga Preobrazenskaya.  There was a Master Class with Jonathan Rosenbaum; lectures and demonstrations of the restorations; In Conversation with Joanna Lancaster (Burt Lancaster’s daughter); Dialogue with Thierry Frémaux (Cannes Delegate) on Digital & Film - A Future for the Past; lecture on The History of the Criterion Collection by the founders; and a Master Class with Alexander Payne, who came to see many of the films I saw.  Sitting not far from me in the same row, I gathered from his discussions with others  that he, like most directors, is an ardent cinephile and a fan of classic cinema.

However, the most entertaining and invigorating event was saved for last - the closing night in the Piazza Maggiore, where 5,000 spectators were treated to the music of, in my opinion, cinema’s greatest music composer in a special homage to Bernard Herrmann.​  Perfectly executed by the Orchestra del Teatro Communale di Bologna, this full orchestral serenade was the cherry on the pie as the festival was brought to a close.  I can still recall my goosebumps when they played ever so beautifully, every bit of music from Vertigo.  Piercing, penetrating and provocative is Bernard Herrmann's haunting compositions. 

Out of the 45 feature films I saw, these are my favourites from this year's banquet, in order of preference:

DCP | 1949 | France | 90 min | ​Yves Allé​gret | Programme: Rediscovered & Restored
A revelation.  ​It seems the spirit of ​Jean Grémillon still lingers a year later at the festival​.  A young man (who appears to be sickly) goes to a small seaside village with "such a pretty little beach" he is told.  But it becomes apparent that he is overwhelmed by a great sadness of something that has happened in his life, but we do not know what.  Certain facts are hinted at and we are intrigued by his behaviour towards the few inquisitive but interesting people who live and work at the tiny inn where he is staying.  Covered with a gloomy atmosphere and foreboding, the landscape itself becomes an oppressive character.  There is a sense of thick humidity amidst the almost incessant rainfall.  He is told by the landlady that the village is not good for the lungs as she probes for more information as to whether he is suffering from tuberculosis.  Without any flashbacks or urgency to disclose the young man's history, this film builds to a climax with even more precipitation and angst.  Much of the film’s success should be credited to the heartbreaking performance of Gérard Philipe, a beloved actor who, in a short career, worked with directors Claude Autant-Lara, Luis Bunuel, Max Ophüls, René Clair, Marcel Carné, René Clément, Jacques Becker and Sacha Guitry.  Sadly, he died of cancer 10 years after Une si jolie petite plage, at the age of 36.

35mm | 1969 | France | 73 min | Marc Scialom | Programme: Rediscovered & Restored
This is why I love coming to Bologna, to discover a great film that was discarded by its own director after being disillusioned by lack of support.  Made with the help from family and friends and without a producer, shot in Tunis, Marseille and Paris, Lettre à la prison is the most experimental film I saw at the festival and it addresses the painful subject of post-colonialism and racism.  This non-narrative masterful film loosely tells the story of a young Tunisian man travels to France to meet his brother who is in jail after being accused of killing a white woman.  The soundtrack of the film is the voice-over reading of 2 letters, one by each brother, both recollecting their origin, childhood and feelings of their new country.  Scialom was not supported by his fellow French filmmakers, including Chris Marker and ironically, this film resembles Le joli mai.  Scialom is a Tunisian born of Jewish and Italian heritage.  He moved to France after the Nazi persecution in Tunisia.  Obviously, the themes of this film resonate with him.  40 years after he had abandoned the film in a drawer, his daughter stumbles on the film and the discovery is to our benefit with the restoration done by the L'Immagine Ritrovata di Bologna.  This is a special film that deals with the painful and irreparable loss of cultural and personal identity.

35mm | 1913 | ​Sweden | 72​ min | ​Victor Sjöström | Programme: The Films of 1913​
​Another film by Victor Sjöström that left me shaken only reinforces my regret in missing his retrospective at Cinematheque Ontario many years ago.  This film from 100 years ago is as noble as the great works of Mizoguchi and Ozu.  It is tough in its social commentary.  A woman has been separated from her three children after the death of her husband.  She is unable to provide for them due to her ongoing illness.  The film comments on the laws of society not from a sentimental angle, but it realistically shows both sides without the use of overt melodrama.  When she learns one of her children given away to foster parents falls severely ill, she escapes from the workhouse where she is forced to stay and makes the long and dangerous journey just to see her child.  This journey runs most of the second half of the film and it is unhurried and tense.  I may be wrong here but I don't think any director up to that time in 1913, had ever achieved what Sjöström does with Ingeborg Holm, in which the individual is fully realized with multiple mental layers.  An absolute poetic ​gem​ of film.

DCP | 19​75​ | Philippines | 126​ min | ​Lino Brocka | Programme: Rediscovered & Restored​
​Finally, I understand what I have been hearing about Lino Brocka for so many years.  A noir-melodrama infused with realism, poetry, beauty and grittiness, all unfolding in the unforgiving and cruel streets of Manila.  Yet, this film is an original as it is hard to classify although there are similarities to Pasolini and Fassbinder.  Brocka is an artist who understands Filipino culture and way of life.  He cuts deep into the social fabric of the lower classes and gives us a film of many dimensions and substance.  One hardly gets a chance to breathe when the next onslaught descends.  Brocka has something vital to say about his culture and he has made a film that succeeds on all levels.  A young man comes to Manila in search of his girlfriend who has been whisked away by a shady woman with promises of a job.  A simple story that is anything but, with many unforgettable sequences.  The long diversion into a gay brothel is at times hilarious but realistic.  This is one of the newly rediscovered masterworks of cinema.  Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation has done well.

35mm | 1961 | Italy | ​101 min | Vi​ttorio de Sica | ​Programme: Vittorio de Sica, Actor & Director​
One of the best films of the festival was reviled and shredded by critics and audiences upon its release.​  ​Written by the great Cesare Zavattini (Bicycle Thieves, Shoeshine, The Children Are Watching Us, Two Women, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Umberto D.), De Sica considered this film to be among his best work.  Somewhat of a religious fantasy told with dark humour, the film crackles with wit and fun about what would happen if we were given a few hours before the world ended and we stand trial for the final judgment.  A voice booms from the sky in Naples announcing that the last judgment will commence at 6 pm.  People go about their daily routine - a skirt-chaser who is trying to find a replacement for his wife how died the day before, a procurer who sells Italian children to rich Americans, an ambassador insults a waiter who demands an apology, a French socialite who travels to Naples to see the statues and when she realises that the world is coming to an end, she declares that "instead of seeing the statues, I am in a hotel room with a man - like a slut!"  She is promptly offered cocaine to calm herself.  Hilarious is Vittorio Gassman’s turn as a dandy whose hat gets tomatoed by a boy.  De Sica tackles hypocrisy and cruelty inherent in human nature and I think the reason the film failed is because it was way ahead of its time.  Any society that believes in the final judgment as really and truly THE FINAL JUDGEMENT, may not understand that De Sica was not making fun of a religious doctrine, but he was making fun of the weakness and natural behaviour of human beings.  Like many spectacular failures, this one has a cast to end all ensemble casts:  Alberto Sordi, Jack Palance, Vittorio Gassman, Silvana Mangano, Vittorio de Sica, Ernest Borgnine, Anouk Aimée, Melina Mercouri, Lino Ventura, Paolo Stoppa and Lamberto Maggiorani from Bicycle Thieves.  A strange, brilliant, unsettling and fascinating experiment of a film.
35mm | 1966 | ​Czechoslovakia | 8​0 min | Ladislav Rychman | Programme: 1960s Czech Cinema​
This time-filler turned out to be one of the festival's most entertaining experiences and a delightful surprise.  The Cinemascope frame can barely contain the glamour, drama and sweet vengeance of this musical about a middle-aged female streetcar driver (not unlike Cabiria) who, one day on her usual route, sees her husband kissing a young blonde on the street.  She abandons her streetcar and passengers.  Hurt and enraged, she then goes to the bank to withdraw all their money.  She makes herself over, changes her wardrobe, not to win her husband back, but she does it for herself.  This is what makes this film so special.  Her foray into a nightclub as she eyes and flirts only with the beautiful young men is simultaneously sad and funny.  Thus begins a tale of morality and equality with many surprises with the biggest one at the very end of the film.  The songs are not very many and are realistically staged as part of the heroine's conscience and inner thoughts, with no elaborate costumes and sets.  One special song is by her neighbours who sing and remind her constantly that "A woman must learn to suffer, it is in her nature."  The other is a glamourous knock-out number, "Feminina Femininae Femininum" set in a beauty salon.  And a runway haute couture show with a number punctuated with only oohs, aahs, sighs and gasps from the female socialite gathering.

35mm​ | 1963 | France | 95​ min | ​Jean-Pierre Melville | Programme: European Cinemascope​
It is inexplicable how a film by the great Melville could be so obscure that it is almost completely forgotten by all and sundry.  The usual suspects of gangsters and gamblers are nowhere to be seen but the two male leads, plus an assortment of supporting male characters are definitely Melvillian.  His themes and ideas gradually become apparent as the film unfolds.  It explores the relationships among men, this time even more acutely than many of his previous more well-known and successful films.  Jean-Paul Belmondo plays an amateur boxer who takes the job of a private secretary to escort a corrupt French banker to South America, giving him safe conduct.  The titular banker is played sardonically by the great Charles Vanel.  As they travel south, they end up stuck in the Louisiana backwoods and a game of dependency, fear and spite is played.  It is there the men’s loyalty and indifference are tested.  This may be Melville's most personal and cruel film.
35mm | 19​57 | Norway | 95 min | Arne Skouen​ | Programme: Rediscovered & Restored​
Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film, Nine Lives takes place during World War II and is based on the real-life experiences of a resistance fighter’s escape from the Nazis after he and a small group of men on a sabotage mission to blow up a German ship, are attacked.  Alone, pursued by the Germans, he attempts to make the dangerous journey from Northern Norway across treacherous territory and over the mountainous and snowbound border to Sweden.  The landscape and snow become characters as he navigates his way across the merciless terrain.  He gets help from the villagers, but must remain buried in the snow via a makeshift snow tent as the Germans close in.  A  fascinating sequence is the blindness he experiences as a result of all that snow.  Man and nature are at the fore-front and background of this excellent film.  Beautifully shot on location, with minimal dialogue and a few tense and very real mountain scenes, Skouen creates a vivid portrait of the enduring spirit of a human being and the kindness of strangers.  When death is inevitable if you reveal yourself to anyone, how do you know in whom you can trust?

35mm | 19​44 | ​USA | 76 min | Allan Dwan | Programme: The Films of Allan Dwan​
A young couple’s marriage is put to the test when the husband realizes that he must retrieve a certain piece of lingerie he gave to a former fling whilst on vacation in Mexico.  Hilarity ensues as this farce goes into overdrive about mistaken identities, hiding under beds, getaways, blackmail and all kinds of shenanigans.  Dwan’s direction is deft and he keeps the actors on their toes.  The film is fast-paced, witty and very funny.  Made during the war, I am sure it provided much relief to the audiences.  The opening statement on the screen says: “Make no mistake, this is a war film, fighting the Nazis and the Japanese is no easy task, but brother, have you ever tried keeping a secret from your wife?  Now, that’s war!”
35mm | 19​27 | ​Soviet Union | 81 min | Olga Preobrazhenskaya & Ivan Pravov | ​Programme: Focus on Preobrazhenskaya​ & Pravov
Considered by many critics to be Olga Preobrazhenskaya’s best film, The Women of Ryazan is a melodrama at heart and its soul is the silent suffering of a beautiful young bride who becomes prey to her lascivious father-in-law as he torments her for her youth and body after his son is called away to World War I.  However, the real villain of this moving film is not the father-in-law, but the women of the village of Ryazan who are insufferably unfeeling and spiteful towards the young bride who is an orphan.  Prejudice leads the way for slander and gossip which brings about nothing but destruction and chaos.  The French title, The Village of Sin, is perhaps better-suited for the film.  We are told in an introduction to the film that Eisenstein and Vertov disliked Preobrazhenskaya and her work.  She was, after all, a female pioneer in the Russian film industry and although this film does not come across as feminist, it is an exceptional film about human conflict.

35mm | 1959 | Italy | 138 min | Roberto Rossellini | Programme: Vittorio de Sica, Actor & Director​
In a role he was born to play, De Sica brilliantly captures the character of petty thief with a deep sense of benevolence.  His dignified approach to the character makes this film a joy to behold.  He swindles money from families of the arrested partisans with the promises of release as he lies about his connections with the German army.  But he really believes that he can help and it is that sincerity that makes his character so compelling.  His encounter with a high-ranking German official leads to mutual respect and a friendship of convenience.  De Sica is asked by the German official to impersonate a certain Generale Della Rovere believed to be captured by the Germans.  His job in prison would be to get the identity of a key partisan fighter.  Rossellini keeps the focus clearly on this flawed human being who changes and grows before our eyes as the film progresses.  It is hard to believe that this film was De Sica's only success after Rome Open City made 14 years before.  He was not to be forgiven for his affair with Ingrid Bergman until he awakened the nation's conscience with this film.  Winner of the Golden Lion at Venice and nominated for the Academy Award for Best Screenplay, Il Generale Della Rovere is one of the great films of the festival.   

DCP | 1964 | South Korea | 107 min | Lee Man-hee | Programme: Rediscovered & Restored
I had no idea what to expect from this rare screening.  Old South Korean films are a rarity to be screened so my interest was piqued.  This is a captivating film set in the world of pimps, prostitutes and some very bad men.  With its dark streets, smoky bars, 1960s cabarets, Black Hair is film-noired to the maximum.  The boss of a gang suspects his wife of adultery and decrees that she be punished according to the rules he made himself.  The punishment is the jagged edge of a broken bottle to the face.  After her disfigurement, she wears her black hair across her cheek to hide the scar.  So far in this film, we have seen this scenario before in other 1960s Asian films.  But here's why Black Hair is special and one of my favourites of the festival:  From the moment of her punishment, the rest of the film plays like a grand Shakespearean tragedy as the boss is filled with remorse, guilt and shame.  He wanders the rest of the film like a man preparing to die but who desperately needs to do penance.  With a climax worthy of any of the Bard's tragedies, replete with declarations and speeches about regret, love and loss, Black Hair is an inky black & white Cinemascope treat.

35mm | 1929 | Great Britain | 90 min| Alfred Hitchcock | Programme: The Silent Films of Hitchcock
This is the best of all the silent Hitchcock films I saw at the festival.  It does show indications of later Hitchcockian themes.  It is beautifully crafted, very stylistic with excellent use of shadows and light.  But most importantly, it is exquisitely directed.  The murder scene is shown only by the scuffling behind closed curtains and then the shadow of a fist.  As with any Hitchcock film, one shouldn't say much.  This is a film to be relished and discovered from start to finish.    

35mm | 193​5 | Japan | ​60​ min | Sotoji Kimura | ​Programme: 1930s Japanese Cinema​
A young woman has fallen to ill-repute after being impregnated by her lover.  She now works as a geisha or prostitute in the city and visits her family from time to time.  These visits spark tension and volatile fights between the brother and sister.  The mother, father and younger sister try to make peace but the fracture is irreparable.  A visit from the former lover changes the course of the film and reveals the true nature of the brother's antagonism towards his sister.  This is a strikingly beautiful film about the fractured relationship between a brother and sister and ultimately about sacrifice.  

35mm | 1948 | USA | 87 min | Allan Dwan | Programme: The Films of Allan Dwan​
What a wonderful surprise the films of Allan Dwan are!  His films are filled with great spirit and optimism in humanity.  I am impartial to comedies and light romances, but when the writing and direction are as sharp as in the works of Dwan, then I am front-in-line.  This cautionary and not surprisingly relevant tale set during the Depression years, reminds us of the need to keep the economy alive by the circulation of cash.  The appearance of $1,000 in cash at a tiny New England hotel leads to a series of misunderstandings that result in the $1,000 being circulated with confusion in the small community.  There is an air of beauty and magical fairy-tale like quality to this film (as in most of Dwan's films from this period).  The cast is superb, handling pages and pages of dialogue that sparkles with witty one-liners.  A waitress is asked if the coffee is fresh, to which she replies, "If it were any fresher, it'd be insulting!"  A greedy shopkeeper tells his landlady after paying rent he owes, "I hope I never see your face again!"  She replies, "Well, I have a very good memory for faces and I hope I never see either of yours again!"

35mm | 193​0 | ​Soviet Union | 125 min | Olga Preobrazhenskaya & Ivan Pravov​ | Programme: Focus on Preobrazhenskaya & Pravov​
Based on what is considered a masterpiece of Soviet literature by Mikhail Sholokhov, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1965, this ethnographic melodrama is relentless in plot development.  The first 30 minutes set the tone of the film as a Cossack soldier returns from war to his tiny village and brings along his veiled Turkish bride.  Racism, intolerance and hatred set the stage for tragedy.  We are then thrust forward two decades and the focus is now on the grandson of the Cossack soldier and his tumultuous relationship with his father.  He falls in love with the wife of another villager and they elope.  Murder, hate, loyalty, seduction, suspicion, jealousy, civil war, the Ukrainians et al intertwine to create a film of passions and fury.   What is most impressive is how confidently the film is directed in spite of all that narrative material.  It seems at times that the frame could not control the overflow of emotions and drama.  

35mm | 1946 | USA | 89 min | Allan Dwan | Programme: The Films of Allan Dwan​
Different from his comedies, Dwan shifts gear with this lyrical and romantic film about an air force clerk in World War II who decides to go AWOL with the help of his friends who are pilots, to travel from England to America to visit his young bride.  Some months later he is discharged and returns home, happy to be reunited with this wife.  But the town has changed their attitude towards him and it is only after he discovers his wife has just given birth to a baby, he understands the reason for the small town's discomfort.  He now has the task of trying to prove that he did indeed come back for one night 9 months ago to be with her, but alas, there are no witnesses.  The pilots will not reveal what happened as they will be court-martialed.  Bristling with joyful energy and great performances, especially Gail Patrick as a nightclub singer, Rendezvous With Annie is an overlooked gem.

DCP | 1962 | USA | 123 min | Blake Edwards | Programme: Rediscovered & Restored​
Never before has asthmatic wheezing been used more effectively in cinema.  To hear the terrorizer say "Hello Kelly" amidst gasps of breath, sends chills up your spine.  It is hard to believe this taut thriller and excellent policier was directed by Blake Edwards, but his filmography is diverse.  The opening 10 minute scene is rivetting with just the shadow of a wheezing man as he frightens Kelly after clutching her from behind and covering her mouth with his hand.  Steeped in voyeurism, this film is relentless in the pursuit of a man who threatens destruction and death to Kelly (played with strength and vulnerability by the wonderful Lee Remick), if she does not help him rob the bank where she works.  But this is not a caper or heist film.  The identity of the psychotic killer is revealed early in the film and there is (mercifully) no  explanation of motive and attempt to psycho-analyze his character.  Edwards keeps the focus strictly on the coldness of terror and the uncertainty of the next move.  A wonderful discovery and a great opening score by Henry Mancini.

35mm | 193​5 | Japan | ​65​ min | ​Mikio Naruse | Programme: 1930s Japanese Cinema​
We are treated to the international premiere of this rare Naruse film, which was never screened outside of Japan since its release in 1935.  Unsuccessful and a critical failure, one tries to understand why and how this film is any different from other Naruse films of the same period.  Although it is a film about the five travelling band players, Naruse focuses on the many women the players encounter on the road and how their relationships with these women affect their lives.  

35mm | 19​36 | ​USA| 65 min | Allan Dwan​ | ​Programme: The Films of Allan Dwan​
Allan Dwan’s edgy romance set in the world of the New York diamond business at the titular location is about a suave jewel thief and his newly acquired accomplice.  During an escape, he slips a precious jewel into her purse.  She plays along as she is completely aware of what has happened, all the while baiting him.  Well-structured and excellently edited, this fast-paced film is funny and unpredictable.  Cesar Romero is fantastic as the no-nonsense thief who lets his guard down for his beautiful partner-in-crime.  Double-cross after double-cross, twists and turns, all perfectly assembled by Dwan.

Until 2014...

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