Any day that closes with a Pola Negri film is a good day, and Sunday was a very good day. La Negri, my personal favourite silent movie star and the owner of the best peepers in the pictures, bar none, features in three films in the official Giornate programme this year (plus a schools matinee of The Wildcat). I knew artistic director Jay Weissberg was a fan, but well, consider me chuffed.
Tonight’s Negri film was Der Gelbe Schein (1918), often known as The Yellow Ticket. Negri plays a young medical student with a melodramatically plotted backstory that slowly unfurls as the film progresses. Suffice it to say that aside from some nice location shooting in Warsaw and the very striking image of a champagne glass full of coins in a brothel scene, this film lives and dies by Negri’s mesmeric performance. She radiates emotion, from those incredible eyes to her fluid posture, and even this early in her career she has the “star quality” that divides actors from icons. We saw the film tonight with a klezmer-tinged folky score from Alicia Svigals that worked very well, giving he melodrama enough room to breathe and softening the edges of a film in which structure runs the risk of overwhelming character.
Back to the beginning, though, and there is nothing like breathing fresh mountain air first thing in the morning. While Pordenone may not be as rural as all that, we were in the hills today, with A Norway Lass (1919), part of the Swedish Challenge strand. No one I spoke to denied that this film proceeded at a sedate, almost glacial pace, but all agreed also that it was astonishingly beautiful, romantic, inventive, charming and felt far more advanced than many 1919 movies. Two youngsters on neighbouring farms fall in love, but he, Thorgbjorn (Lars Hanson) is a hothead and so she, Synnöve (Karin Molander) must wait for him to grow and earn her love. Although, he’s clearly a good guy from the start, and sometimes it seemed as if the more passionate relationship was that between Synnöve and Thorgbjorn’s sister Ingrid (see below), especially when they danced in the high pasture. An excellent portrayal here of a slow-burning romance set in a place torn between puritanism and paganism, with contrasting Midsummer rituals. Also, a rather mischievous, gargoyle-faced young farmhand was busy persuading Thorgbjorn of the existence of a troll family in the valley (cue excellent inserted troll feasts) when he was the only goblin in sight and all too human at that.
One of the most appealing strands in the programme, for me at least, is devoted to female comediennes and topically named Nasty Women. Hard to believe that the last Giornate, just a year ago, was BT, Before Trump. The first selection, shown this morning, featured Catastrophe in the Kitchen. Plenty of indigestible baked goods and strings of sausages stolen by mutts, but far more and far more inventive comic adventures besides. I loved Alice Guy-Blaché’s riotous chase film La Course à la Saucisse (1907) but also the wonderfully quirky Segundo de Chomón movie Le Rêve de Marmitons (1908) in which a group of kitchen hands doze at work and due to a little magic and some sleep-surgery, the hands of the hands do their work for them. But only in their dreams! Plenty of innuendo in the titles here (How Bridget Served the Salad Undressed, indeed!) not least in the rather chaotic Mack Sennett production Are Waitresses Safe? (1917) which was admittedly messy (more than one film spliced together? Maybe) but was a treat of a chance to see Louise Fazenda in action as a hapless maid. More fun was added by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius making gleeful noises in the orchestra pit. Can’t wait for more of this.
My favourite shorts programme of the day was almost blink-and-you’ll-miss-it short. This afternoon Bryony Dixon introduced a brilliant programme of brief, but luminous Victorian films. These, which featured such exotic locations as Venice, Pompeii and the Menai Bridge, were so rich in detail and gorgeously crisp and bright that they outshone most things we have seen on the Verdi screen so far. I gasped. My neighbour gasped. This was a great way to experience the thrill of early cinema almost as it would have been felt at the time. These films, some 60mm and 68mm, looked so fresh and the people in them so natural, they appeared ultra-modern. Impossible to believe they are from the century before last.
Before I continue, a quick confession. It’s fine to admit that you haven’t seen all the films in the Canon Revisited strand before, right? Otherwise why would they show them? But I had never even blinking heard of The Faun (Fauno, Febo Mari, 1917). This beautifully tinted allegorical romance was deftly shot with plenty of shadows and lush outdoor shooting. An artist’s model falls asleep and has a dream in which her sculptor boyfriend is unfaithful to her, but she finds comfort in one of his statues, come to life – the faun, played by Mari himself. This was a puzzling film at times, which never quite went in the direction I expected, but enchanting nevertheless. I felt there was more passion and humour in it than the romantic piano score we heard today allowed, but that’s just a guess. It’s by turns pastoral, erotic, moral, and seedy. It’s shamelessly beautiful too. Look out for it.
Talking of gaps in my silent cinema knowledge (we could be here all day), there are lots of Japanese films playing this year, which is very welcome. I really wanted to see Shima No Musume (Hotei Nomura, 1933) today and what I did see of it looked very impressive, very emotively acted and beautifully shot, but with lots of intertitles, and no English translations on this print, I was distracted by constantly second-guessing my bad Italian so I ducked out. I feared I had made a big mistake, but the Giornate gods have smiled on me once more and there will be a repeat screening with English subtitles on Tuesday. A Pordenone miracle – I told you this was a very good day.
- Intertitle of the day: “All men are the same: beasts from the heart down, like me.” The faun puts his best hoof forward, with a bizarre line so good he said it twice.
- Impossible anachronism of the day: In Der Gelbe Schein’s 1898 flashback, Pola Negri and her boyfriend looked exactly like 1967 California hippies. What goes around comes around, and around, and around …
- Star of the day: Think no one could compete with Pola Negri? Then you must have missed the little girl feeding the pigeons in St Mark’s Square at the start of the Victorian programme. That smile!
- Visit the Giornate del Cinema Muto website