Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Il Cinema Ritrovato 2019

"I read an article the other day that claimed the world's weather is changing" Cary Grant tells Ingrid Bergman as they discuss the unseasonably muggy atmosphere in Indiscreet (1958), which screened from a vintage Technicolor print at year's Il Cinema Ritrovato. The line got a laugh from viewers frantically fanning themselves inside the Arlecchino Cinema because the encroaching heatwave had been a prime topic of conversation in Bologna all week, as it had been across much of Europe. "Hell is Coming" was a headline that confronted me as I read The Guardian over breakfast one morning. It's not really the kind of thing you want to read on your holiday.

The stuffy atmosphere inside the Arlecchino can threaten to make even a brisk trifle like Indiscreet feel like a slog, especially when the cinema is packed to capacity with viewers even sitting in the aisles, as it often the case for these Technicolor screenings; Alfred Hitchcock's Under Capricorn (1949), hardly one of his most popular films, was similarly oversubscribed. Fortunately, the star power on display in Donen's film cannot be dimmed and it was a real treat to experience it with such a huge and appreciative crowd, particularly the increasingly farcical and funny second half of the movie. David Kossoff's perfectly timed appearance at the door following his protracted rehearsal towards the end of the film brought the house down.
The heat only defeated me on one notable occasion. When I watched the German film Der Ruf (1949) on my last evening in Bologna, I just couldn't focus on the movie. My energy had been completely sapped by the oppressive weather and I couldn't connect with a film that everyone else seemed to love. Perhaps it wasn't all down to the heat, though. I wonder if the film's steady pace and muted drama made it feel a little stodgy after the imaginative and zippy German films I'd enjoyed earlier in the week. The “We Are the Natives of Trizonia” strand focused on the immediate postwar period of German cinema, when filmmakers began contemplating the country's traumatic recent past and uncertain future. The methods they used to do this were frequently surprising. Helmut Käutner's In Jenen Tagen (1947) is narrated by the wreck of an old car, recalling its seven previous owners as it is stripped down in a scrapyard. Through these vignettes, which begin in 1933 and end in 1945, In Jenen Tagen attempts to tell the story of life in Nazi Germany from the perspective of ordinary citizens. In the hands of many filmmakers it may have felt gimmicky and clunky, but Käutner is such an elegant director, and so good at developing characters in a few swift strokes.

Käutner's touch was also evident in Film Without a Title (1948), with his ingenious screenplay being directed with great verve by Rudolf Jugert. The film begins with three filmmakers (including Willy Fritsch, hilariously spoofing himself) debating whether it's possible or even right to make a lighthearted romantic comedy in these dark times, and as they continue to argue the point we see the romance between a professor (Hans Söhnker) and his maid (Hildegard Knef) rewritten several times, with elements of social realism bleeding into the comic storytelling. What's so striking about these films is how they steered clear of the neo-realism or 'rubble films' that one might expect from a nation emerging from a destructive war. Instead they are slick, stylish entertainments made with great confidence and wit.
It's easy to imagine someone like Käutner crossing over into Hollywood and becoming one of the great studio directors. Il Cinema Ritrovato tends to put one Hollywood figure under the spotlight every year. In previous editions we have celebrated Leo McCarey, Carl Laemmle, Jr. and John M. Stahl, and this year Henry King was the main man, with eleven of his films (a fraction of his long career) being presented. I'd already seen two of the films in the programme – Twelve O'Clock High (1949) and The Gunfighter (1950) – and I caught another of his collaborations with Gregory Peck in Bologna with the riveting western The Bravados (1958). This is a shockingly dark and violent western, with Peck on excellent form as a man consumed by his need for vengeance, but the King films that really captivated me blended emotional complexity with a deceptive lightness of touch. State Fair (1933) and Wait till the Sun Shines, Nellie (1952) displayed King’s gift for recreating a nostalgic, idealised vision of American life and investing it with a melancholy undertone.

Wait till the Sun Shines, Nellie in particular is an extraordinary piece of work. Shot in dazzling Technicolor by Leon Shamroy, the film follows fifty years in the life of both a town and the barber (David Wayne) who was one of its original inhabitants. His willingness to placate his frustrated wife through a series of lies and his determination to dictate his son’s ambitions drives them both away from him, and there’s a fascinating tension in this film between the colourful, high-spirited surface and the bitterness and regret that haunts its protagonist. Wait till the Sun Shines, Nellie is a very strange film that shifts direction three or four times, even incorporating a gangster subplot and a musical number into its decades-spanning narrative. That strangeness is a key part of its appeal, though, and while this programme may have presented some Henry King films that feel more cohesive and complete, none of them got under my skin and lingered in my thoughts in quite the same way.
The question of what constitutes a filmmaker’s greatest achievement is an interesting one to consider. When introducing one of the Felix Feist screenings, programmer Eddie Muller described Tomorrow is Another Day (1952) as this director’s masterpiece, and it certainly is a fine film; Steve Cochran and Ruth Roman are excellent as the ex-con and the dame he gets mixed up with, and the film moves into morally ambiguous territory in its third act. It’s unquestionably a classier piece of filmmaking than The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947), but give me the choice right now and I’d choose to re-watch the scrappy hour-long B-picture instead. This is a drum-tight noir with a hint of screwball comedy in which Laurence Tierney (on brutish, swaggering form) hitches a ride to make his getaway and causes all manner of problems for the driver and two women they pick up along the way. Within its limited boundaries the film is nimbly plotted and directed, and Feist finds room for several eccentric supporting characters who relish the hard-boiled dialogue (such levity was notably absent from The Threat (1949), the second half of this double-bill). Feist was a director capable of great elegance when required – I loved the understated, unnerving climax of The Man who Cheated Himself (1950) – but the title of this strand was ‘Brutal Nasty and Short,’ and no film lived up to that billing better than The Devil Thumbs a Ride.

Both Henry King and Felix Feist enjoyed long careers and varying degrees of success, but what happens to a director when a film just disappears? Spring Night, Summer Night (1967) has a fascinating ‘what if?’ story to tell. The film was programmed in the 1968 New York Film Festival before being dropped to make way for John Cassavetes’ Faces (1968), and that was pretty much it for Joseph L. Anderson’s film, which largely slipped out of public view for the next five decades, although it briefly emerged re-cut as an exploitation film entitled Miss Jessica Is Pregnant. Now it as been restored for Nicolas Winding Refn’s ByNWR streaming channel and it should finally earn its place as a major work of American independent cinema. It’s a tale of incest between two siblings (Ted Heimerdinger and Larue Hall) who come from a broken, bickering family in a rural Ohio town, but the film proceeds with no judgement and respects the complexity and ambiguity of each character. It’s a stunningly evocative piece of filmmaking, with crisp black-and-white photography and a haunting sense of place; it’s as vivid and moving a portrait of small-town American life as The Last Picture Show (1971). The performances are so naturalistic and affecting (particularly Larue Hall, who is jaw-droppingly great) it’s hard to believe that these actors have such few credits to their name, and I was glad to hear that a blu-ray release is currently in the works which will hopefully shed further light onto this overlooked masterwork.
Seeing forgotten directors be rediscovered is one of the great joys of this festival, particularly when those filmmakers are present to receive their long-overdue applause. I witnessed such an occasion two years ago when Med Hondo was present to give emotionally charged introductions to his films, and Hondo – who died in March – was a spiritual presence at this year’s festival with his film Les Bicots-Nègres vos voisins (1974), an imaginative and provocative examination of colonialism, capitalism, socialism, immigrant labour, exploitation and racism that unfolds in a series of arguments and sketches. This is the fourth film I’ve seen by Med Hondo and every one of them has been audacious, original and powerful. He wants to activate his audiences, to provoke questions and action, and in this is perhaps his most directly confrontational work.

One of the central questions Hondo poses in Les Bicots-Nègres vos voisins is to ask what exactly constitutes African cinema. It’s a question that the festival has attempted to answer in recent years in collaboration with the African Film Heritage Project, which aims to restore and distribute fifty African films over the coming years. The latest fruits of its labour were presented at this year’s programme, with the best of them being Jean-Pierre Dikongué-Pipa’s Muna Moto (1975), a riveting portrait of misogyny and exploitation within an African community. The film has a raw emotional force but Dikongué-Pipa brings lyrical touches to his direction – his use of direct point-of-view shots is particularly potent – and it’s brilliantly structured, opening with a dramatic confrontation and then flashing back to show how a young couple in love reached this moment of crisis. A film made with great passion, anger and artistry, Muna Moto deserves to be rediscovered by a new audience, and it was a privilege to be present as Jean-Pierre Dikongué-Pipa shared this moment with us. As the director told festival curator Cecilia Cenciarelli: "You didn't restore my film, you restored me."
Many of the themes touched on in Muna Moto were reflected in Baara (1978), another of the African films presented in Bologna. The film’s title translates as Work, and almost every scene focuses on labour or capital; a series of negotiations through which Souleymane Cissé details a whole social and economic fabric of this patriarchal society, and the cycles of exploitation and corruption inherent within it. Like Muna Moto, Baara feels incredibly alive and resonant, but much discussion in the post-film Q&A focused on the quality of the presentation rather than the knotty themes of the film itself. Cissé was very unhappy with the quality of the 35mm print screened (which was the best the festival could locate after a months-long search and having rejected even worse prints), and in fact he said he would rather see this print destroyed than be shown again. It felt like an overreaction to me – the print certainly was far from the worst I’d seen, and it in no way diminished the film’s power – but I can understand his frustration at seeing his rarely screened film presented in sub-optimal conditions. One hopes this exceptional piece of work is next on the World Cinema Foundation's restoration list.

Director Q&As are a rarity in Bologna. The filmmakers who do attend usually introduce their films rather than take questions after them, and sometimes that’s more than enough; Nicolas Winding Refn’s antics during his pre-festival intro to Drive (2011) caused a full-body cringe from anyone who recalled them over the following days. Sometimes an impromptu Q&A session can break out in an unexpected way, though. "I don't want to disrupt the event... well, maybe I do" Francis Ford Coppola said as he began to question why an event billed as a ‘masterclass’ was in fact a staid onstage interview and expressed the desire to speak directly to aspiring filmmakers and students in the audience instead – to talk to them "student to student" as he put it. Soon a long line of young admirers was lining up to ask their questions with Coppola eagerly answering every one of them, resisting his interlocutors’ attempts to get the event back on track and refusing to leave the stage until he had addressed each question, even as the event overran.
But it wasn’t just his rebellious, disruptive spirit and passionate engagement with his audience that made this such a special event, it was the tone of his speech. He was full of earnest advice for the next generation, encouraging them to find new ways of making films, to form collectives and write from the heart and take advantage of modern technology to bypass the traditional cinematic structures. Coppola has always been a forward-thinking artist – remember his “one day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart, you know, and make a beautiful film with her little father's camera” line from Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991)? – and it was thrilling to see how insatiably curious he remained about the potential of this medium. Il Cinema Ritrovato is a festival that celebrates cinema’s past, but its most invigorating spectacle was provided by a great filmmaker looking with boundless optimism and excitement into its future.