Home Cinema Ritrovato 2020 #5: To Fight a War

The festival closed, for me at least, on a grim note. Apocalyptic in fact. Perhaps it was end-of-festival anguish. Perhaps it’s just the end of the world as we know it.

Here’s how I rounded off my virtual Il Cinema Ritrovato.

Aimé Césaire – Le Masque des Mots (1987)

The most joyful thing I saw was another Sarah Maldoror film, Aimé Césaire – Le Masque des Mots (1987), a longer portrait of the “négritude” poet from Martinique who so influenced Léon G Damas as seen in the previous film. The use of his poems on the soundtracks as we whizz along the skytrain in Miami, the wisdom of Maya Angelou, and Césaire himself talking with such clarity and passion about surrealism and the “African Art message” – this is a precious thing indeed.

Tap Roots (1948)

For an, er, opposing view of colonialism, we could turn to Tap Roots (1948), a Technicolor Civil War film directed by George Marshall. This film had much to recommend it, especially Susan Hayward as the headstrong Southern Belle at the heart of the story. However, we could also say that it has all of the vices of the much more famous Gone With the Wind (1939) and too few of its virtues. We watch the war break out from the Mississippi valley owned by the Dabney family: grandfather, father, and two coquettish daughters. Ruby Dandridge, mother of Dorothy, plays the family servant, and Boris Karloff a native American friend of the grandfather. Julie London Hayward’s even minxier younger sister. Van Heflin is the trigger-happy local newspaper editor who seizes hold of Hayward… and the war comes home to roost in many different ways. It’s grand, and it’s gorgeous, let’s leave it at that.

I saw one more short, the emotionally brutal dissection of a fatal traffic accident, To Kill a Child (1952) by Gösta Werner, the film director and historian who wrote an authoritative book on Mauritz Stiller. The deceptive simplicity of this film, with the monosyllabic voiceover calmly foretelling the murder of an in fact, observing the horror of the moment, is actually a kind of hamminess – a mock-detachment designed to chill the spine as much as any fireside ghost story. Ever so effective. Perhaps too effective. And it had a lot in common with my final feature of the festival.

Fail Safe (1964)

Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe (1964), the festival catalogue reminds out, came out around the same time as Dr Strangelove, but it takes a very different approach to the Kubrick film. No score, no surrealism, no jokes of any kind, not even from Walter Matthau. Just scared people in small rooms trying to avert the ultimate catastrophe. And of course, as promised throughout the week Henry Fonda is finally the president. And a fine, grizzled and determined president he makes too. One who underplays his own importance, but not the gravity of the situation. One who approaches his job like any other.

In the face of nuclear disaster, Fail Safe is just like its president. It refuses to flinch or sentimentalise, although it does push a party line of sorts: there are lines of dialogue that suggest extermination may be preferable to living under communism. Patriotism-wise, it’s a master-stroke to have Fonda in conversation not with his Soviet opposite number, but across the table from his young interpreter, a very young Larry Hagman. Just as with To Kill a Child the tragedy here is entirely predestined. Every step takes us closer to the end, and just as you are losing hope Hollywood will save you from horror, you realise that hope never existed.

What a way to go.

Find out who won the DVD Awards here.

• The best news: José Arroyo and Richard Layne are podcasting from the festival daily – here.

• 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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