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Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna, XXVI Edizione: Don’t Cry Over Spilt Celluloid

Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna, XXVI Edizione: Don't Cry Over Spilt Celluloid

To borrow a formulation from Proust: for a long time I wanted to go to what is perhaps the most cinephilic of all film festivals, Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna.  A quirk of timing – my family always got together over the 4th of July weekend, which often was exactly when Bologna was scheduled – and perhaps a bit of anhedonia kept me away.  And justification, aka kidding oneself: they’re doing an homage to Frank Capra, I’ve seen them all. They’re programming early John Ford, I’ve seen them all.  Both of which are not quite true – there’s always something I haven’t seen — plus I was careful not to learn too much about what else Bologna was programming.

But now that I’m here for the first time, after not quite a full day of screenings, I am seriously in love and can’t imagine ever missing an edizione again. Reading the program last night and studying the catalogue today was an exercise in pleasure mixed with pain: all the rubrics sounded irresistible (even, I must admit, ones featuring movies I’d seen before).  From 9 a.m. through 8 p.m., four theaters show programs opposite one another. At ten p.m., famously, all of Bologna who cares to shows up in the Piazza Maggiore for a free screening in the cool night air (after what is, also famously, a rather hot and humid day).

So. This year’s model. Every year since 2003 there’s a section devoted to movies of exactly a hundred years ago: hence, 13 programs of rarities and obscure shorts from 1912, of which I am immediately drawn to Programma 6, “J’ai deux amours: La Pathe et Paris,” and Programma 7, “Current Affairs and Fashion.”  

“After the Crash: Cinema and the 1929 Crisis” offers ten fiction films that deal with the Great Depression. Masters of Italian Documentary offers films by the unknown-to-me Raffaele Andrassi, Gian Vittorio Baldi, Aglauco Casadio, Luigi di Gianni, Cecilia Mangini, Elio Piccon, Florestano Vancini, and the somewhat-known-but-mostly-by-reputation Mario Ruspoli.  A brief Indian tribute offers a film on an archivist, “Celluloid Man: A Film on P.K. Nair,” and a restoration of a 1948 film directed by and starring Ravi Shankar’s brother, the dancer Uday Shankar, “Kalpana.”  

There’s a program of two early films about Italians in Italians in Argentina, and another featuring more than a dozen of the first talkies made in Japan. In a section entitled “Recovered and Restored,” there’s a new print of Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America,” half-an-hour longer than the version I still have fond memories of seeing in 1984 in a huge empty cinema on Times Square. And “Die Weber” (1927) from Germany, “Les Miserables” (1934) by Raymond Bernard (shown in three parts over three days, running in total 285 minutes), Renoir’s “La Grande Illusion” (finally a film I have seen almost enough times), “La Romana” (1954) by Luigi Zampa, “Lola” by Jacques Demy, and too much more to continue to list. I will pause now, not even half-way through the catalogue (did I mention a tribute to Alma Reville, Hitchcock’s wife?  Eight programs devoted to the movies of silent film director Lois Weber?), and slip in my own tribute to a glorious day of cinephilia.

Every first visit to a film festival is a voyage of discovery.  I’m used to festivals starting slowly, with just a few movies on opening day. And since friends from America who have been to Il Cinema Ritrovato before tell me they’ll arrive a day late – “We’ll miss ‘Prix de Beauté,’ “, they tell me, blithely – and the schedule has not yet shown up on the website, I feel OK coming in a day late, too.  After all, I’ve seen “Prix de Beaute,” a fairly minor Louise Brooks title, made just as she was beginning her slide into Hollywood oblivion, more than once.

But when I arrive at my hotel and pick up a copy of the program from a stack on the lobby desk, I see that I’ve actually missed a full and dense day of programming while I was cooling my heels in the Frankfort airport, waiting for a connection.  Il Cinema Ritrovato starts with a bang, and most of the day’s offerings, I see, will not be repeated.  

I’m especially blue about “Sonnenstrahl,” a film by the elusive, mysterious Hungarian director Paul Fejos.  I have only seen one movie by him, the magnificent “Lonesome,” (1928) and, despite decades of wanting to see anything else by him that I could, nothing has ever popped up from his forty-odd (in some cases, very odd) filmography.  Not quite nine hours before I arrive in Bologna, it seems, they showed “Sonnenstrahl” (1933) in the Cinema Jolly, as part of the Cinema and the Crash program.  No using crying over spilt celluloid, I think, quietly gnashing my teeth, as my old friends Jonathan Rosenbaum and editor/director/actress Jackie Raynal walk into the lobby.  

They tell me they’ve just left the outdoor screening of “Prix de Beauté,” because they were both falling asleep. (Later I realize that the movie was still playing, and that if they’d mentioned that it was mere steps away from the hotel, I could have caught some of it. And heard some of the specially-commissioned new score by Timothy Brock, played by the forty-odd Orchestra del Teatro Communale di Bologna. Ah well.  No use crying over spilt celluloid.)

And, because the place where I’ll pick up my festival badge doesn’t open until 9 a.m., I don’t have to choose among the multiple early offerings on the morrow: Raoul Walsh’s “The Big Trail,”  (I’ve seen it, more than once), three early Japanese talkies (I haven’t seen them), two documentaries from Elio Piccon, “A Man’s Castle” by Frank Borzage (seen it, love it, just lost it when my latest DVR died). So I dawdle at the Hospitality Center, quickly spending almost a hundred dollars on books (but I could have spent SO much more!): “Le Cinema? Plus qu’un art!…Ecrits et Propos, 1925 – 1959,” by Jean Grémillon, with a preface by director Paul Vecchiali, who happens to be in Bologna to introduce several screenings in a nine-film Grémillon retrospective; and a book of  essays about Olivier Assayas edited by Kent Jones, as well as the English translation of Assayas’ “A Post-May Adolescence: Letter to Alice Debord,” brought out this year by the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna.

From there it’s a quick slide into what I’m there for: gluttonous movie-going.  At 11 a.m., Grémillon’s “Maldone,”  (1927), which at first I think is going to be a barge film, one of my very favorite petit genres (see “L’Atalante,” “Unter den Lindens,” “L’hirondelle et la mensonge”), but turns out to take place mostly on dry land.  It’s a compelling and exceptionally beautifully photographed story of a carefree layabout who inherits a family estate but finds bourgeouis existence stifling (even when married to the exquisite young Annabella).  I can only mourn the third of the film that was cut from the original; as I later learn from the catalogue, this restored version is all that remains.)

At the 2:30 screening of “David Golder” (1933), Julien Duvivier, an installment in the Cinema and the Crash program, I run into Haden Guest, director of the Harvard Film Archive, and Janet Bergstrom, film professor at UCLA. We are treated to a brief lecture on the author of the novel it’s based on, the quixotic Iréne Némirovsky – whose work often seems curiously anti-Semitic, for someone who is shipped off to Auschwitz. The film stars the amazing Harry Baur, also visible in the Festival in Bernard’s “Les Miserables” and Duvivier’s “La tête d’un homme.”  “David Golder” is powerful and moving in its portrayal of a Polish Jew who becomes a wealthy French businessman but sees his self-worth crumble as he realizes that nobody loves him for anything but his money.

Right afterwards Haden & I slide into a program of short films by Grémillon as well as his first feature, “Gardiens du Phare,” while Janet leaves (“I’ve seen ‘Gardiens du Phare’ many times,” she says, reasonably) to see an also-tempting program of three Lois Weber movies.  The lecture before on the subject of one of the shorts, Ella Maillart, who apparently had a brief affair with the married Grémillon, goes on a bit too long, especially because very little of what we learn about her has much to do with what turns out to be something like one of Andy Warhol’s screen tests.  The inevitable jet-lag (it is, after all, nine hours earlier somewhere in my confused, excited, but ultimately vulnerable mind and body) sets in, and I’m very groggy during “Gardiens dup hare,” which is only 70 minutes long but seems interminable as I rouse myself fitfully.

Haden, who has been in Poland for a week before coming to Bologna, catches me up on the plot as we rush towards a 6 p.m. screening of Luigi Zampa’s “La Romana” (1954), starring Gina Lollabrigida.  He warns me that he thinks he’ll only stay for a few minutes, especially since the lecture has made us miss ten or so minutes of the film.  The room is totally packed, so we find ourselves standing at the back.  We are instantly caught by the witty screenplay: Lollabrigida is a model who slides into prostitution through the helpful ministrations of lying men. (The film is ostensibly set in 1935, but the sets and costumes are straight-on 50s.) The men include Daniel Gelin, Franco Fabrizi, and Raymond Pellegrin. We stand through the entire movie: I lean against the back wall, and Haden, to my astonishment, doesn’t.  When we walk back to our hotels, he gives me an excellent précis of Fejos’ “Sonnenstrahl” as we walk through a shabby but charming little park in which the locals have set up a small screen for their own little film festival.

Even though I’ve seen Jacques Demy’s “Lola” many times, I go to the outdoor screening for the experience, and to see the indefatigable Agnes Varda (with her signature, truly odd, bi-color bowl cut, a tonsure of snowy white surrounded by a thick border of deep red) pay tribute to the restoration, aided by her children, Rosalie Varda and Mathieu Demy.  Mathieu acknowledges the cheers issuing from a café on one side of the square, thickly populated by locals watching the incongruously-scheduled World Cup soccer game between Italy (!) and Spain. Their enthusiasm continues through much of the movie, which is rather more charming than one would expect.  Italy wins, whereupon the café empties out and an impromptu, equally noisy parade can be heard winding through the town.

Afterwards I grab a gelato (cioccolato and mandarina, though I was more tempted by the pistachio-and-canteloupe cone I saw Janet Bergstrom consuming before the movie) and am briefly trapped by the crazed soccer mob, unable to reach my hotel.  I run into the wonderful pianist Stephen Horne, who I’ve heard accompanying silent movies at Pordenone, Telluride, and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and brilliantly, too (sometimes he manages to play the flute and reach into the piano to pluck some strings while still playing said piano).  He’s a trifle glum.  He’s just learned that Italy’s next game, the semi-finals, is scheduled directly opposite his long-awaited Bologna debut, in the square, on Thursday, playing his own score for Miles Manders’ “The First Born.”  I offer to buy him a cone.  But at this point he needs more than ice cream.

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