Home Cinema Ritrovato 2020 #3: courtrooms and circuses

Simple maths question for you? How long does it take to watch an 85-minute movie? If I had answered “85 minutes” this morning I would have been wide of the mark. It took me more like 140 minutes to get through an at-home screening of Marco Ferreri’s brilliant military satire Donne e Soldati (1955).

That time lag is on me, and my susceptibility to drop what I am doing when a piece of work comes through on email, on the fact that I was doing a load of laundry, that I made coffee and that the postman knocked twice (well, this is a movie blog). I’m not proud of it, and I need to try harder (other screenings today were far less interrupted). I am beyond grateful to Il Cinema Ritrovato for organising this online companion to the festival, so I promise I will get better at tricking myself I am in the Cinema Jolly, and not my front room.

Today’s films were excellent and Donne e Soldati is one of my top recommendations from the fest so far. Away from Ferreri’s medieval siege, we had law courts and circuses galore today. So the question of the day is, I guess, if you absolutely had to be cross-examined under oath, would you rather that Henry Fonda or Mae West was doing the questioning? Be careful, anything you say may be used against you … etc etc.

First Donne e Soldati. This absolutely knocked my socks off. I had zero expectations, but it’s a real discovery for me. Soldiers from opposing sides of a siege narrate this dry satire, in which the officer class lounge while the rank and file struggle, starve and … get creative with their options Especially the women, who descend from the besieged castle every night for food.

The overblown, be-frilled armour of the attacking commander and the balloon-like shell worn by the rotund Signori “defending” his castle put most British viewers I know in mind of Monty Python’s hunt for the Holy Grail, but this is subtler, more serious comedy than that. Blacker than black humour, fully humanised characters aside from the top brass and high stakes. Would you starve or flirt, given the choice?

Young Mr Lincoln (1939)

I turned next to Young Mr Lincoln, and instantly felt a little out of my depth. As when I watched Stahl’s Lincoln Cycle at Pordenone a couple of years back, I swiftly realised I knew very little about the early years of Honest Abe (ignorant Brit alert) and certainly had far less knowledge than Ford and Fonda would have assumed in their audience. Still, after a rocky, un-engaging start, Fonda won me round, as is now becoming a pattern.

For me this film really warms up when, after some folksy fun at the fair, Lincoln gets a murder case to work on – the case in the film being based on one from Lincoln’s career. Fonda-as-Lincoln’s grandstanding in court was truly something to see, from the elaborate J. Palmer Cass joke to his righteous victory. Apparently Daryl Zanuck and Ford were bitterly at odds during the making of this film, with Ford destroying his unwanted takes, should the producer re-cut the film against his wishes.

It’s a film about fights and fallings out in fact, about lynch mobs and grudges, while Lincoln sits at the centre of it all, seemingly the only man in Illinois who can see the simplicity of the moral universe: an action is either right or wrong with no grey areas. And he comes to his decisions as calmly as he chooses between apple and peach pie. If he cheats on the tug o’war at the fair, I’m willing to bet he had a good reason for it.

The second courtroom of the day was furnished by Mae West and Wesley Ruggles and their endearingly lewd I’m No Angel (1933), but let’s not rush there. As West herself says “I’m very quick in a slow way” and if you were trying to wiggle your hips in a corset you’d know exactly what she meant.

To introduce the big-top setting of I’m No Angel today’s short programme kicked off with two wonderful films introducing us to circus performers. First, a bittersweet portrait of the Casartelli family, touched by terrible tragedy but still performing arcobatic miracles down the generations, Piccola Arena Casartelli (1960, Aglauco Casadio). Second, a real eccentric, the acrobat and stuntman Osiride (Pevarello) was portrayed in a film of the same name by Marcello Baldi in 1996. He was a charmer, with plenty of tales to tell. We met him outside Rome, living as he always had done in caravans, though poignantly he and family all craved the stability (and waterproofing) or a brick-and-mortar house.

Armenia, Cradle of Humanity (1919-1923)

Is it time for Mae West yet? No, we have a silent film first. And a sobering one too.

Armenia, Cradle of Humanity (1919-1923) is just four beautiful minutes of film shot, as a title tells us, under the shadow of Mount Ararat and suitably Biblical in scope. This film is from the Library of Congress, restored by the Cineteca di Bologna. The landscapes are breathtaking, but it’s the faces that will linger with you, the faces of orphaned children on boats taking them to a place of refuge: the Kuleli military school in occupied Istanbul.

I’m No Angel (1933)

For us, all roads lead West eventually, and so to I’m No Angel in which the sexpot’s sexpot shimmies and slurs, eats men for breakfast and dashes off double-entendre one-liners until she meets her favourite prey: the young and impressionable Cary Grant. If there’s one thing filthier than, well, every second word that falls from West’s beautiful mouth, it’s the lust-struck way that Grant stares at her in court. No wonder that moments later he’s nuzzling at her neck and asking to become her slave.

I’ve always had a soft spot for films set in circuses so the backstage vibe here is very much my thing. The lion taunting, not so much. But truly there isn’t a Big Top in the world that could have held West.

West wasn’t just a self-made woman and a self-made star, she was a self-made phenomenon. It’s so refreshing in the context of Hollywood of any era to see someone who is wholly and utterly her own creation – and unlike anybody else on screen before or since. Cary Grant wasn’t just gawping. I reckon he was taking notes.

• News from Pordenone! Tickets for the online Limited Edition shows go on sale on 7 September and the prices start at a very reasonable €9.90

• For real-time reports and reviews from someone who is actually in Bologna for the festival, follow friend of the site Philip Concannon on Instagram.

• Visit the website of Il Cinema Ritrovato for more information.

The full streaming lineup is available here.

• Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page.

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