Philip Concannon reports from Bologna’s festival of rare, rediscovered and classic film.
At the height of summer, when cinemas are dominated by the noise of 3D blockbusters, Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival can feel like an escape route for filmgoers seeking something more sedate, rare and esoteric. Now in its 29th year, the festival gathers together an eclectic range of films from across the world, presented on both archive prints and new restorations, and introduces them to audiences who may never get another opportunity to see them. The large and detailed festival brochure handed out to attendees uses the term Il paradiso dei cinefili, the cinephiles’ heaven, and I found little in my time there to contradict this statement. Having said all of that, it felt a bit incongruous to don a pair of 3D glasses as I sat down for my first film after arriving in Bologna. It seems there’s no escaping stereoscopic gimmickry.
Despite the stimulating sight of Ann Miller thrusting her legs at the audience, Kiss Me Kate 3D didn’t do a lot for me, and it certainly wasn’t a patch on Charles Vidor’s Cover Girl, which was the last film I enjoyed before catching my flight home. Between these Technicolor musical bookends I tried to taste a little of everything that Il Cinema Ritrovato had to offer, which is probably the best way to approach such a diverse programme. The films are shown throughout the day across five screens, all within short walking distance of each other, as well as a big outdoor screening in the Piazza Maggiore every night, and it’s impossible to see everything that catches your eye. In fact, the remarkable range of programming available is evident in the schedule I followed on my first full day at the festival – the newly restored Moroccan film Alyam Alyam; Jacques Tourneur’s little-seen Western Great Day in the Morning; Kajiro Yamamoto’s melodrama Girls in the Orchard; a programme of Leo McCarey-directed silent shorts; and a 1973 Iranian film called A Simple Event.
Of these films, all of which I liked, A Simple Event was the standout. This film was part of a strand entitled The Birth of the Iranian New Wave, and it’s easy to see its influence in later acclaimed works by filmmakers like Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarostami. As the title suggests, there’s not much to Sohrab Shaheed Salles’ film at first glance. He follows a quiet 10 year-old boy at school (trying, and failing, to avoid trouble), at work with his father, and at home tending to his ailing mother. The director establishes a steady, repetitive, cyclical rhythm as the boy goes through this daily routine, until a tragedy – the simple event of the title – briefly disrupts it. Reminiscent of The 400 Blows, the poetic and beautiful A Simple Event is one of the great films about life as seen from the perspective of a child, and the 35mm print shown in Bologna was impeccable.
While A Simple Event was notable for its quiet restraint, some films were operating at the other end of the spectrum. The Richness and Harmony strand focused on the early days of colour filmmaking in Japan, and it seems the filmmakers who got their hands on colour stock really went to town with these new possibilities, as the eye-popping images often seemed to take precedence over some creaky, old-fashioned storytelling. Girls in the Orchard was certainly a visual feast, but unfortunately many of these films suffered from faded prints, and one could only imagine how spectacular they would have originally looked. Still, I was struck by the exquisite compositions throughout Kazuo Mori’s The Fireflies’ Glow, the climax of which I found very moving, and it would take more than a faded print to dull the effervescent performances given by Hibari Misora, Chiemi Eri and Izumi Yukimura in Toshio Sugie’s So Young, So Bright. This inventive and frequently hilarious pop musical might look like a disposable piece of entertainment, but it proved to be a subtly progressive film, particularly in its depiction of parental relationships and women’s rights. It also has a number of catchy songs that I found myself whistling at idle moments throughout the rest of the day.
A similarly infectious rhythm was provided by the Jazz Goes to the Movies strand. Basil Dearden’s All Night Long transposes Othello to London’s jazz scene of the 1960s, with Patrick McGoohan as the Iago figure determined to break up a relationship, and while the plotting was a little strained in places (as was McGoohan’s American accent), Dearden’s tight direction and the way he utilised music made it a gripping experience. But the real magic here was to be found in the short films that preceded All Night Long. The 1929 film Black & Tan Fantasy, which featured Duke Ellington’s first screen appearance, is a visually creative drama that boasts a number of great images – the shadows cast on a wall towards the end of the film being particularly striking – and it builds to a climax that gave me chills. That film was followed by Gjon Mili’s 1944 short Jammin’ the Blues, which is an absolute masterclass in lighting, composition and editing to music. Discovering these two shorts constitutes one of my favourite experiences of the festival, and proof that you never know where the revelations are going to be found in the Bologna programme.
That sense of the unknown, of great discoveries waiting around every corner, is what makes Il Cinema Ritrovato feel unlike any other festival. There’s such a relaxed vibe around the whole affair (around the whole beautiful city, in fact), and there is no pressure to see particular films because everything has the same potential to surprise and amaze. I had no expectations when I sat down to watch Norman Foster’s 1950 noir Woman on the Run, but this low-budget affair doesn’t waste a minute of its slight running time. The dialogue is sharp, the performances are first-rate (Ann Sheridan as the straight-talking protagonist; Dennis O’Keefe as a sleazy tabloid hack), and the plot has a few neat twists as it builds towards a stunning fairground climax that recalls The Lady from Shanghai. I’d never have imagined such a satisfying experience from this unknown noir, and when I wandered into Kikos on a whim later the same day just to kill some time, I was similarly taken by surprise. This Armenian silent film stars the Chaplin-esque Ambartsum Khachanian as a peasant caught up in the midst of war, and I was taken aback by the way Patvakan Barkhudarian manages to play this for light satirical comedy while still creating a powerful depiction of the human cost of warfare. The images have the vitality of Dovzhenko’s Earth and the film is edited with the exhilarating energy and skill of Pudovkin. It’s a breathless, engrossing 53 minutes.
This festival isn’t just about new discoveries, though. It also offers plenty of opportunities to reacquaint oneself with old favourites, and to see them under particularly memorable conditions. It was a treat to watch Leo McCarey’s hilarious films The Awful Truth and Ruggles of Red Gap with an appreciative audience, and I continue to be affected and intrigued in new ways every time I watch Vertigo, which was projected from the vibrant Technicolor print that Hitchcock donated to the Cinémathèque Française. Two screenings in the Piazza Maggiore proved to be highlights too; Buster Keaton’s works of genius One Week and Sherlock, Jr. – both restored as part of the ongoing Keaton project – benefitted from an orchestral performance of Timothy Brock’s scores, and we had a unique opportunity to see The Thin Red Line on the only dye transfer Technicolor print that was ever produced. The astonishing clarity of image on this blemish-free print gave Malick’s meditation on nature, man and war an awesome power.
But when I think back on my time in Bologna, my thoughts immediately settle on one film. I have long wanted to see All That Heaven Allows on 35mm, and to see it on a vintage Technicolor print in superb condition is an experience that will stay with me for some time. The richness of the colour in every frame of Douglas Sirk’s masterpiece was breathtaking, and the film’s sense of yearning and heartbreak hit me like a wave. There are few things more satisfying for cinephiles than having a film you think you know intimately suddenly reveal itself to you as if for the very first time. Cinema rediscovered, indeed.