Monday, July 31, 2023

Il Cinema Ritrovato 2023

Ever since I started attending Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, June has been the month I’ve looked forward to more than any other. This year, I had an extra reason to eagerly anticipate it. A few weeks before my regular Italian jaunt this summer, the BFI hosted the inaugural Film on Film Festival; a four-day celebration of celluloid projection in all its forms. Expertly curated by James Bell and Robin Baker, this programme caught the imagination of audiences and generated a buzz that I had never experienced on the South Bank. It was the closest thing to Bologna that I have ever felt in London, and it was a reminder of how special and singular the act of film projection remains in our increasingly digital and disconnected world.

This short festival also acted as a handy teaser for Il Cinema Ritrovato. One of the most exciting events was an ultra-rare screening of Rouben Mamoulian’s Blood and Sand on a nitrate print, which showed off the film's ravishing use of colour to eye-popping effect, and Mamoulian was undoubtedly the star of this year’s Bologna programme. Il Cinema Ritrovato has a history of celebrating studio directors who hopped from genre to genre and adapted to the changing fashions in careers that spanned decades, and through a selection of these features we can see the artistry and thematic consistency that defined these filmmakers.
The Mamoulian strand contained a number of his most celebrated works – including Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Love Me Tonight and Queen Christina – but I was excited to discover some of the less familiar titles. It was particularly interesting to see how Mamoulian’s style could elevate generic material in the pre-Code City Streets. It’s easy to imagine the mundane crime picture this could have become in the hands of many directors – there’s nothing new in its tale of a racketeer’s daughter (Sylvia Sidney) and her boyfriend (Gray Cooper) getting mixed up in bootlegging – but Mamoulian finds something interesting to look at in almost every scene. Consider the way he uses a burning cigar, or films two men walking down a corridor with one represented as a shadow, or shoots an expositional conversation between two characters by focusing on the cat statues that happen to be in the room.
His elegant direction similarly lit up one of the very best films I saw in Bologna, even though it’s a film that appears to have a poor critical reputation compared to Mamoulian’s other works. We Live Again is an adaptation of Tolstoy's novel Resurrection, and in its opening scenes I felt like I was about to understand why this picture hasn’t received widespread acclaim; the picturesque depiction of 19th century Russian life feels hokey and the dialogue given to Fredric March’s prince as he espouses his socialist ideals is blunt. But as the film progresses, it delves into much more complex emotional territory. After seducing the peasant girl Katusha (Anna Sten), March’s character rises through the ranks and forgets his earlier principles, while Katusha gives birth to a stillborn child and is cast out into the streets. The film becomes a story of a man realising that he has lost something valuable and striving for atonement, and much of this conflict plays out on March’s face, with the actor expressing his inner anguish in a few intense and nuanced close-ups. With sharp script contributions from Preston Sturges and gorgeous cinematography from Gregg Toland, this is a handsome and absorbing production, but what really sets it apart is its subtle approach to character, its frank take on sex (the ‘morning after’ scene made our audience gasp) and its sincere spirituality. It’s the ultimate example of what curator Ehsan Khoshbakht wryly described as Mamoulian’s ongoing fascination with “the holy and the horny.”

The other director receiving the retrospective treatment in Bologna this year was Teinosuke Kinugasa, whose work beyond A Page of Madness and Gate of Hell has rarely been seen outside of Japan. The selection presented here was a mixed bag, but there’s no doubting Kinugasa’s eye for a striking composition, even in a film as severely compromised as his 1935 version of An Actor’s Revenge, which was hacked down from its original five-hour running time and is now barely comprehensible. Kinugasa’s vision aligned most beautifully with the material in the epic drama Dedication of the Great Buddha, which details the creation of a Buddha statue in 8th century Japan. This is a film about the creative process, artistic jealousy and political machinations, as the humble sculptor (Kazuo Hasegawa) enlisted for the project has to face myriad rivals and antagonists who threaten to sabotage him. Kinugasa brilliantly creates an imposing sense of scale and the scenes of construction are worthy of comparison with the bell-casting in Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. It’s an astonishing film that poignantly expresses the toll that this arduous project took on the men who did it: "My life...for this."

The Kinugasa selection in Bologna was a mere fraction of this extraordinarily prolific director’s body of work. Others had a much more complete showing. Michael Roemer has had two theatrically released feature films, Nothing But a Man and The Plot Against Harry, but the second of these was barely released at all. This drily comic portrait of a Jewish gangster emerging from jail to find his personal and professional lives in turmoil was shelved by its distributor for not being funny enough, and it wasn’t released until 1989, when it was widely acclaimed and nominated for six Independent Spirit Awards. What impact might it have had in 1971, when it predated Mean Streets, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and the rise of Woody Allen? It’s a tragedy that Martin Priest and Ben Lang (both nominees in 1990) didn’t receive the recognition and career boost they deserved for their wonderful work here. Perhaps it’s easy to see why The Plot Against Harry was considered a hard sell  it’s a determinedly low-key picture, with the narrative essentially consisting of things just happening to Harry as tries to do deals and mend broken families ties, while simultaneously trying to avoid the stress that might afflict his enlarged heart  but I loved the film’s off-kilter sense of humour and its fascinating depiction of New York at a particular point in time. It deserves to be more widely celebrated.
These discoveries are what Il Cinema Ritrovato is all about. I love taking a chance on a film I’ve heard nothing about and leaving the cinema enraptured by the greatness I have just experienced. My knowledge of Syrian cinema is non-existent, but I’m so glad I caught Mohammad Malas’ Dreams of the City. Based on the director’s own childhood, this film centres on Dib (Bassel Abiad), who moves with his younger brother and widowed mother to Damascus, where they are forced to live with his taciturn and abusive grandfather. Set against the backdrop of Syria’s tumultuous political landscape in the 1950s, this is one of the great coming-of-age films, with Malas capturing such raw emotion in the relationship between Dib and his violent grandfather and heartbroken mother, and between the other characters we meet, who are turned against each other by the political climate. The film also gives us an invaluable look at the lost city of Damascus, beautifully photographed by Ordijan Anjin and splendidly presented on this excellent 35mm archive print. My only regret is that I didn’t see the other Syrian film in the programme, Tewfik Saleh’s The Dupes, which everyone I spoke to raved about, but such missed opportunities are par for the course here.

Not every print was a pleasure at this year’s festival, though. A number of 16mm screenings were programmed in that format’s centenary year, but these fragile prints often struggled to get through the projector. William Klein’s Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther broke twice during the screening, while the presentations of 1960s Italian music videos and a screening of Lucretia Lombard had to be abandoned. The latter was particularly frustrating, as the first couple of minutes of Jack Conway’s film had shown promise and the print failed just as Norma Shearer had made her first appearance. We did get to enjoy some other gems from 1923, though. Jean Epstein made his first solo effort as a director this year with L'Auberge rouge, and it was thrilling to see him pushing his technique in so many areas, with a boldly roving camera and some particularly potent point-of-view shots. I was also impressed by the visual imagination on display in Arthur Robison’s Schatten, which eschews intertitles and makes ingenious use of shadows as its characters are lulled into a dream state where their deepest desires are revealed. If Robison had known when to quit – ideally after the genuinely shocking climax – then I might be hailing this as one of the greats, but even if its impact is diluted slightly by the extended epilogue, it’s still a remarkable picture.
The most astonishing film from the 1923 strand came from a most unlikely source, however. I've enjoyed watching Ivan Mosjoukine in Bologna a number of times, and his performance in Le Brasier ardent is typically charismatic, lively and unpredictable; his introduction, where it is revealed that he’s been hidden in plain sight throughout the whole scene we’ve just watched, is a delight. But the revelation here is that Mosjoukine also directed Le Brasier ardent, and he proves himself to be an extraordinary talent on that side of the camera too. The film knocked me back in my seat in its opening few minutes, with an extraordinarily visceral, surreal and unsettling nightmare sequence, and throughout the movie Mosjoukine creates incredibly imaginative scenes, full of bizarre images and crazy production design. This film changed the course of Jean Renoir's life (“I decided to abandon my profession, which was ceramics, and to set about making films,” he wrote) but its poor reception at the box office sad killed a potentially thrilling directorial career.

I may go to Bologna primarily to venture into the unknown and unearth these hidden gems, but it would be remiss of me not to mention one of the most glorious experiences I had this year, with a film I have watched countless times. Black Narcissus played in Piazza Maggiore on a brand-new 35mm print, which brought an overwhelming clarity and vibrancy to The Archers’ awe-inspiring use of colour and ingenious art direction. The shot of Deborah Kerr standing in the lake during the flashback in Ireland, with the sunlight glistening on the water around her, was so dazzling on that huge screen it took my breath away. If the BFI led us into Il Cinema Ritrovato this year, then Bologna returned the favour with this screening, as this splendid new print is one of a few that have been struck for the BFI’s major Powell and Pressburger celebration later this year. I already can’t wait to see it again.