A few years back, when the world may not have been young but this blog certainly was, and I had begun to hit the silent film festival trail, I received some alarming advice from Neil Brand. “What you really want to do as well,” he said, “is to go to Bologna. The weather’s great, the food’s amazing – and there are even talkies, too.”
Well two out of three ain’t bad. By Bologna, Neil meant Il Cinema Ritrovato, a festival of archive cinema that takes place every summer. Ritrovato means something like rediscovered. So, fittingly this festival shows rediscovered films, but also rarely seen films, films on rare formats and vintage prints, and newly restored films too. Largely, anything more than thirty years old qualifies for the festival, which gives it a giant scope.
I knew lots of people who went to this festival, but as always with anything new, I was a little wary to dipping my toe in the water. Worst-case scenario – I might really enjoy it and develop an expensive habit. So, the first year I went for just three days, then I skipped the next year and was filled with regret. For the past three years running I have turned up for about five or six days, almost the whole thing. And every time I have had a ball. Great films, in vast quantities, and a celebratory atmosphere that is almost as warm as the Italian sunshine.
I’m back from Bologna and joined in the podcast studio by Pete Baran and film writer Philip Concannon. We’re chatting about our highlights, discoveries and duds from the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival – a banquet of archive, vintage and restored cinema, spanning silent and sound films.
The Silent London Podcast is also available on iTunes and Stitcher. If you like what you hear, please subscribe and leave a rating or review too. The podcast is presented in association with SOAS radio by Peter Baran and Pamela Hutchinson.
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London’s great, it really is, but sometimes a blogger has to seek wider horizons. So this year I will be packing up my laptop and getting my soy cappuccino to go. I’m hitting the road to report on the silent film festival circuit – more of which anon – and I may possibly be popping up in a cinema near you.
First, an exciting announcement! The British Silent Film Festival is back this year. We have dates and a venue confirmed – 14-17 September 2017, at the Phoenix in Leicester – but no more news yet. Barring flood or fire, I’ll be there, and I recommend that you attend also.
Before that, however, I’ll be introducing two fantastic silent films by female directors at venues that couldn’t be much further from Leicester, and each other.
Completists, please avert your gaze. During the three days I spent at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna I missed far more than I saw. With four screens, plus lectures, workshops, exhibitions, open-air screenings, and programmes for children all running at once, there is too much here for any one person to take in. It’s a festival that requires endurance, decisiveness and a philosophical approach to the ones that got away. But if you think you’re tough enough, start clearing your diary for summer 2014. And welcome to classic cinema bootcamp.
Ritrovato is all about rediscovery – the films on show here have all been found, restored or reclaimed. They are the work of film-makers whose work deserves a second look, or whose weighty reputation means that their films merit a little extra care and attention. To this end, the festival is woven from many strands – and even if one were to stay for the entire festival, it would require a certain single-mindedness to see one of them through from start to finish. On my flying visit, I didn’t have a hope. This is my way of excusing my scattergun approach to the festival – a programme of early shorts here, a classic Chaplin two-reeler projected in the Piazza Maggiore there, a lush new print of a silent Hitchcock here, a rustic Soviet melodrama there. And sound films too. Lots of them, actually, I cannot tell a lie.
According to my notes, the first film I saw at the festival was a four-minute snippet from 1913 called Hungarian Folklore, which detailed wedding traditions in the country. Good intentions and all that. This was followed by Baby Riazanskie, a chewy melodrama directed by Olga Preobrazenskaja and Ivan Pravov. I never saw another of their films – because I was distracted by other delights, and because I was slightly underwhelmed by this one. Another regret.
My highlights included the Allan Dwan silents, especially Zaza and Manhandled starring the fantastic, feisty Gloria Swanson, and the action-packed East Side, West Side. I enjoyed many of his sound films too: witty sweet-hearted comedies from the 40s and 50s.
I was captivated by the beautiful if overlong city symphony Etudes Sur Paris – catch it for the underground canal sequences alone. I was moved by Victor Sjostrom’s social drama Ingeborg Holm (a 100-year-old Swedish Cathy Come Home) and tickled pink by Chaplin’s The Cure.
Another highlight was a recently discovered collection of sweet colour films from 1906 screened using carbon light projector in the Piazzetta Pasolini late at night. I didn’t want that to end. The Farmer’s Wife, all gussied up by the BFI as part of the Hitchock 9 project, looked beautiful and its peculiarly English humour translated well to the Bologna audience.
When it comes to talkies, I was emotionally shredded and enthralled by Anna Magnani in Rossellini’s L’Amore – and again in Roma Citta Aperta. Plein Soleil, La Belle et La Bete, Chimes at Midnight … I don’t feel the least bit guilty about watching those.
The main thing I missed during my trip was Bologna itself. I strolled around the Piazza Maggiore one morning, and glimpsed the two tipsy towers, but I was far too distracted by the flickers to do any real sightseeing, or sunbathing in the 30-degree heat. Arrivederci, Bologna.
And if you’re thinking of visiting Il Cinema Ritrovato next year, here are my top five tips for festival newbies. If you’ve been to Ritrovato before, please share your tips below:
Get yourself a map of Bologna. And mark the festival venues on it. Do this before you arrive so you’re not wandering the streets panic-stricken, in search of a Gloria Swanson film, like a certain blogger of our mutual acquaintance.
Patience is a virtue. The screenings run late. And almost every film is prefaced with a long introduction, in at least two languages. Luckily the movies are worth the wait.
Health and safety. Strappy wedge sandals, cobbled streets and ten-minute gaps between screenings led me dangerously close to a few unscripted slapstick moments. There is a shuttle bus in operation between the cinemas, for those who really need assistance. For the rest of us – these strolls are the only exercise you are going to get all week. And drink lots of liquid: caffeine will get you through the schedule, but it’s hot out there, so drink plenty of water too.
See one film you’ve never heard of every day. The best festival experiences are the surprises – and the programme at Ritrovato has plenty of surprises up its sleeve.
Don’t be discouraged by the catalogue. The descriptions of films in the official catalogue are useful, and very detailed, but often a little cool. Trust your instincts – and the festival programmers.