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.
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This is a guest post for Silent London by David Cairns, a film-maker and lecturer based in Edinburgh who writes the fantastic Shadowplay blog.
The so-called “Italian diva” school of silent cinema presents challenges for those in love with narrative and closure, and not just because many of the films are incomplete or untranslated. These movies seem genuinely less concerned with plot than surrounding national cinemas, though this assertion must be qualified in a number of ways.
What the films definitely are obsessed with is their stars, such women as Lyda Borelli, Francesca Bertini, and Pina Menichelli, around whom the films revolve, wholly. It’s as if the Italians noted that stars seemed to be what the public cared for most, and so decided to put everything else on the back burner while serving up long, langurous shots of languishing, anguished beauties. Superficially resembling both the kohl-daubed vamps of the Theda Bara school, and the later Swanson type of clothes-horse drama queen, Borelli and her sisters in sin dominated their films in a way few stars have been allowed to. Dietrich, maybe, or Garbo, but even those screen queens had to make way for plotting and forward momentum.
Back to the studio for a full-length edition of the Silent London Podcast. I’m joined by Pete Baran to talk about the festival scene, discuss the first silents we ever watched and catch up on the news. We’re joined by London Symphony director Alex Barrett, who tells us about his favourite silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and we preview the British Silent Film Festival as well as reviewing the great Hollywood silent Flesh and the Devil.
We also make inappropriate comments about Greta Garbo, and I get a little bit over-excited about Pordenone. Just another day in the office really.
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.
This is a guest post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London.
Welcome back for another edition of Charlie’s London. This week I am going to be talking about my debut appearance on the Silent London Podcast, as well as my recent trip to the thoroughly mindblowing Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, Italy
Being a Chaplin fan you are never short of on-screen comedy capers to keep you entertained, but when someone tells you you can visit the Charlie Chaplin Archive in Bologna, Italy should you be in the area, well you don’t really have to think twice. My partner Kieran and I took a 6am flight to Bologna so that I could visit the archive, but also so we could enjoy the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival too.
At the Cineteca in Bologna we registered for the archive and the festival. All around us everyone complained about the heat, but being half Turkish I didn’t really mind. No sooner had we sat down for a coffee, my phone began to ping, it was Jenny, a fellow festival-goer who had not only made the journey to Bologna but was also staying in the same hotel as us. Pretty soon we were all together, along with Mark, another friend and great supporter of Bristol Silents looking over the festival plan.
Initially I began to look over the schedule from Wednesday to Friday, because I was due to be in the archives Monday and Tuesday, but this turned out this was a pointless exercise. In the end, I was in the archive until Friday morning and in total saw only five films at the festival. The film that left the biggest impression on me was the new restoration of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Mark had told me many times before that it was a film I would enjoy, not only because I have a soft spot for Technicolor but because I have spent a lot of time researching the first and second world wars. He wasn’t wrong! It was a feast of restored beauty, history and irony.
My biggest adventure came on Monday when I finally got to visit the Chaplin archives. Everything has been digitised to make viewing incredibly easy. The staff are so helpful and friendly, even with the busy festival under way in the grounds. Before I knew it I was engrossed, flicking through pages and pages of useful and exciting documents all relevant to a massive piece of research I am undertaking. Kate Guyonvarch, Kevin Brownlow and of course David Robinson all were there to give me a helping hand: their support was priceless. Imagine, as I have done, having read someone’s work since you were 11 years old, only to find them standing behind you in an archive and clarifying a sentence in one of their books that you want to quote in your research! That what David Robinson did, and he refreshed my memory on something I had a mental block on. After many cups of lovely Italian coffee and long chats I had more than 40 pages to take back to England: the tip of the iceberg had been scratched.
Bologna is a long way from South London! Charlie’s London had very much gone continental. Here is where my biggest conundrum lay – you can’t just take a bus to these archives. I knew I had so much I wanted to look at, but I was meant to be at a film festival, what was a girl to do? Luckily enough I have a very supportive partner who smiled and told me to book more time in the archives. So, what started as two days ended up being the whole week, and it was worth it! I discovered so much more about my hero.