If you are the kind of fool who thinks a programme of Soviet travelogues sounds a bit dry, then you are the same kind of fool as I am. However – as I once advised on this site, when you’re at Pordenone watch one thing that scares you everyday. So I was in the Verdi for the 9am travelogues and boy was I smug about it afterwards. Pamir. Krishna Mira (The Roof of the World, Vladimir Yerofeyev, 1927) was an absolutely fascinating journey through remote mountainous Kyrgyzstan, with just the right balance of intriguing domestic minutiae and awe-inspiring geographical grandeur. One series of intertitles pithily explained: “The women do all the chores … the men mostly do nothing … Occasionally they go hunting.” Actually, there was more to it than that. The men also whittle, weave, smoke opium, traverse perilous mountain passes and even perform very watchable partner dances in costume: the horse and the rider, the old man and the young girl, the fox and the marmot.
Photographed in regions where the air is so thin that water boils at 86 degrees Celsius or so cold that film itself can freeze, this can’t have been an easy documentary to shoot, but if offers a vision of another world, and now, I would guess, one that is almost entirely lost. I am sure that Günter Buchwald’s meticulous accompaniment on piano and violin was key to the success of this screening, providing a silk thread through the film’s essentially episodic structure.
From raw ethnography to dream-factory fantasy, with another parcel of early Euro westerns. These are rather slight things, but the devil, or rather the joy, is in the detail. Le Railway de la Mort (Jean Durand, 1912) was a kind of compact Greed – no, really, with a not dissimilar ending, augmented by a ferocious, red-tinted explosion. And before that, a series of train stunts that Hollywood, in any era, would have been proud of. In Italian western Nel Paese dell’Oro (1914) the star was not a gunslinger, but Toby the faithful dog, who helped to build barricades, did his level best to throttle the villain, and even rescued a lost tot from kidnappers and cold water, Rescued by Rover style. A canine who can.
Happily, I had the chance to return to Shima No Musume this lunchtime and what a pleasure it was. This melancholic drama is a little like a Japanese Borzage movie, with an unrepentantly sorrowful conclusion. Suffering is a woman’s lot, so just tough it out for the sake of your loved ones, be they living or dead. Sensitive performances, sharp dialogue, nuanced photography … such a surprise that it was one of four films rushed out to capitalise on a surprise hit single, and such a shame that the director, Hotei Nomura, a Japanese film pioneer, died a year later.
After lunch, I caught Soviet sci-fi classic Aelita: Queen of Mars again. Every time I watch this, it seems to get longer. No, that’s not a criticism. It’s just that there is far more earthbound material than I remember, and surely we are all here for the hinged-trouser, perspex-wonderland Martian scenes? It’s all stirring stuff, though, and proof that the Soviets had humour and style as well as polemic up their sleeves. This delightfully strange material was only enhanced by a semi-improvised score courtesy Maud Nelissen, Elizabeth-Jane Baldry and Frank Bockius.
After dinner, we settled down in a packed Verdi to Victor Sjöström’s Vem Dömer? (Love’s Crucible, 1922). Lenny Borger and Neil Brand have christened this “Catholic Noir” imagining a genre family tree that stretches all the way to Scorsese. They have a point, but round my way this sort of thing is simply known as Gothic. We’re in the Renaissance. Ish. Italy. Ish. And Ursula is unhappily married to Anton but in love with another man. If she buys the poison and places it in Anton’s drinking cup, but doesn’t give it to him, though he dies of a heart attack anyway, is she guilty of murder? What if the poison was swapped for a placebo without her knowledge? But what if he saw her add the poison? It’s a moral minefield, and Jenny Hasselqvist is rather fabulous as the tortured heroine. My eyebrows raised at the conclusion, which seemed to me to be theologically unsound, but what do I know, my only religion is the movies and the firewalking finale was thoroughly spectacular. This was Sjöström crossed with Dreyer and don’t dare tell me Ingmar Bergman never saw this.
Heathens or not, we were blessed tonight with a typically beautiful score from Neil Brand, who always seems entirely at ease even with the most outlandish and difficult material. One could have heard a pin drop, or a spiritual crisis spark to life. Never overstated, even when the pitchforks were raised, Brand’s music lifted the film to its best, I am sure of it. And while I am on, can we have a drumroll please for Frank Bockius, who tirelessly accompanies so many of the pianists on percussion, improvising with great care and creativity? Not only is he matching the film, but another musician too, and it is always seamless. Plus he’s one of the nicest chaps you can meet at the Giornate. I’m happy to say that he plays in the UK quite often, so look out for him.
After a date with my conscience, I was ready for a late-night double-bill of seedy French moral compromise. Well it was a day with a Y in it. And the final slot of the night, from the Canon Revisited strand, was just what I fancied. One film I knew, one I didn’t know at all, and both scored immaculately by Stephen Horne and Romano Todesco. I knew Ménilmontant (1926) fairly well, Dimitri Kirsanoff’s impressionistic tale of two orphaned sisters adrift in the backstreets of Paris falling prey to a cheap pimp, so I let the film’s cruel beauty and Horne’s music wash over me a little. The opening murder was as painful and jarring as it should be, but also thrillingly dramatic, but, and you shouldn’t tell anyone this, I was in floods when a stranger offered the starving mother some bread and meat. A clichéd scenario, perhaps, but it felt all too fresh tonight.
Fiévre (Louis Delluc, 1921), was new to me, and this encounter with romantic disillusionment down on the Marseille docks looked like exactly my cup of warm gin on paper. It’s more of a mood piece than I expected, though – poses and attitudes rather than story. But there was violence and passion, and wonderful character performances, inlcuding Footit as a pub regular. And there was beautiful accordion and piano – so reader, I swooned.
I hope you don’t expect me to summarise a day such as this one. Here was the best of silent cinema, and a few of its oddities too, but I defy anyone who saw what I saw today to dismiss or trivialise the early years of the art form. I mean, just look at the variety and the artistry. More to the point, look at the love and imagination with which it can be presented, and is presented, year after year. Pordenone really is a very special event. But I best pull myself together, we are only halfway through!
- Repulsive theme of the morning: animal cruelty, buckets of it, from bull-wrangling to Astrakhan lamb skinning to arctic hunting. Lunch at the vegan cafe was in order.
- Intertitle of the day: “Touch your lips to mine, as the humans on Earth do.” Aelita, Queen of Mars fancies a snog. Pucker up.
- Alternative transport of the day: the Kyrgyz chap “crossing” a river using an “inflated sheepskin boat” seemed to be driven by the river, rather than the other way around. But at least he was moving.
- Star of the day: perhaps perversely, given the first entry on this list, this title was easily carried by Toby the hero dog. Bravo!
- Miss of the day: Apparently skipping the Luca Comerio programme was a big mistake. Gorgeous Kodachrome clips. I hope to catch them, or something similar, back in London at the LFF.
- Disclaimer of the day: this isn’t actually a blogpost from Pordenone. It’s an advertisement for tyres. Or inflatable sheepskins.
- Visit the Giornate del Cinema Muto website