Tuesday, July 09, 2024

Il Cinema Ritrovato 2024

Six years ago, I walked onto a building site underneath Piazza Maggiore in Bologna and tried to imagine what the cinema planned for this cavernous space would look like. The Cinema Modernissimo – which opened to the public in November 2023 and became a core venue in this year's Il Cinema Ritrovato – exceeded my wildest expectations. It's a gorgeous space to watch a movie in, inviting you to walk past posters and memorabilia from film history as you make your way into the 350-seat auditorium, with its beautifully decorated balcony and comfortable red seats, many of which are emblazoned with the name of a cinema luminary. I was delighted to find that my front-row ticket for the first festival screening placed me in the Martin Scorsese seat, and I later got to witness first-hand Alexander Payne's surprise and delight when he found his name on a seat in row B.

When I’d finished gawping at the surroundings and had settled into Marty’s chair, my first screening of Il Cinema Ritrovato got underway. It was a trio of shorts from 1924 presented on 35mm – Dziga Vertov’s Kino Pravda No. 18, Abel Gance’s Au secours! and Ballet Mécanique, created by Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy – and each was an example of a filmmaker testing the boundaries of what was possible in cinema at that time. I was particularly surprised by Au secours!, which was directed by Gance between the monumental projects of La Roue and Napoléon. This Max Linder short about a man attempting to win a bet by staying in a haunted castle until midnight is very silly – it essentially plays as an Abel Gance-directed Scooby Doo episode – but it gives Gance plenty of license to experiment, distorting the image in a variety of ways to express his protagonist’s mounting confusion and fear. Valentina Magaletti’s drum-heavy accompaniment didn’t quite align with this film’s comic tone, but it certainly chimed with the dazzling Ballet Mécanique in an exhilarating way, and there was something apt about beginning my festival experience in this brand-new cinema watching century-old films that felt so thrillingly modern.
These films were part of the festival’s 100 Years Ago strand alongside such pleasures as the fine Czech film Bílý ráj on the carbon arc projector and The Avenger of Davos, which boasted some superb location footage shot around that year’s Winter Olympics. Il Cinema Ritrovato contains a couple of regular strands that never fail to serve up surprises and discoveries, and in recent years the Japanese focus programmed by Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström has been an invaluable resource, often showcasing films that have never been seen outside Japan. This year’s director in focus was Kōzaburō Yoshimura, a filmmaker unknown to me aside from his 1951 film Clothes of Deception, which I saw in the BFI’s Women in Japanese Melodrama season in 2017. One of the films selected for the Bologna retrospective was called A Woman's Uphill Slope, and that could have been a fitting title for the whole strand.

He certainly had a way with actresses, and the great Machiko Kyô gives a magnificent performance in The Naked Face of Night. Written by Yoshimura’s longtime collaborator Kaneto Shindo, the film follows the template of All About Eve, with Akemi (Kyô) as the determined and cunning young dancer who supplants her mentor and becomes a star, only to find young disciple Hisako (Ayako Wakao) following the same path in this endless cycle of ambition and treachery. Shot in widescreen and in a combination of colour and black-and-white (a sudden unexpected shift to monochrome halfway through leads to one of the most haunting scenes), The Naked Face of Night is a brilliantly crafted melodrama, but it’s also fascinating as a social drama, with its depiction of geisha culture and dance exploring the clash between tradition and modernity in postwar Japan.
The Naked Face of Night builds to a cynical and bleak denouement, but then Yoshimura and Shindo didn’t have a lot of use for happy endings. The other great film I saw in this strand was Sisters of Nishijin, which centred on a family being torn apart by financial pressures – a common theme in these pictures. As this family attempts to keep their textile business afloat following the suicide of the debt-ridden patriarch, Yoshimura and Shindo tease us for a while with the possibility that they will manage to turn things around, and a few moments of compassion and generosity are deeply moving, but then they start turning the screw. External pressures chip away at this family’s sense of dignity and hope, and creditors and loan sharks start lining up to claim their share of what’s left. By the end of the film, the house this family has always lived in is literally being pulled apart around them as their mother breathes her last. It’s a shattering film.

As well as the regular focus on a Japanese filmmaker, Il Cinema Ritrovato regularly hosts a retrospective for a director who worked in the Hollywood studio system; the kind of filmmakers who moved across projects and genres and were rarely regarded as auteurs. In recent years we have enjoyed rediscovering directors like Henry King, Hugo Fregonese and Rouben Mamoulian in this strand, and if this year’s focus on Anatole Litvak didn’t quite excite me in the same way, a couple of his films were revelatory. The 1932 film Cœur de lilas shows off his direction at its most fluid and dynamic, from the imaginative opening sequences onwards. It’s the story of an undercover cop who falls for the woman he’s investigating, and in the climactic twenty minutes Litvak uses the camera and editing to express his characters’ tortured emotions in a vivid way. A young Jean Gabin steals scenes with his unmistakable swagger, but I was captivated by Marcelle Romée as Lilas and convinced that an actress with such a striking presence must have further work to explore. Alas, Romée committed suicide in the year of this film’s release, leaving behind just four screen roles. She was 29 years old.
Following his success in France, Litvak moved to Hollywood and signed for Warner Brothers, where he made a number of successful pictures, but none that I’ve seen so far come close to City for Conquest. Given the fact that this is a New York-set boxing movie starring James Cagney and shot by James Wong Howe, it seemed inexplicable to me that I had never even heard of it. The film sounded right up my street, and so it proved. It’s a superb portrait of dreamers having to sell a part of themselves to make the big time, and when tragedy strikes in the film’s second half, the way Cagney plays it – never succumbing to sentimentality – makes it even more wrenching. The brilliant ensemble features Ann Sheridan, Anthony Quinn, Donald Crisp and even Elisa Kazan, and every performance hits the mark. It’s a severely underrated melodrama that deserves to be mentioned alongside other great boxing movies from the era, such as Body and Soul or The Set-Up.

It's not uncommon for films that were popular in their day to slip into obscurity, but some films don’t even get the chance to reach an audience before disappearing. After debuting at the 1999 Toronto Film Festival, Charles Burnett’s The Annihilation of Fish promptly vanished, with a negative review in Variety apparently being enough for the distributor to drop the film. This was a grievous injustice, as Burnett’s film offered one of the most charming and hilarious experiences at the festival. It’s an oddball romance starring James Earl Jones and Lynn Redgrave; he is beset by invisible demons, with whom he periodically wrestles, while she believes she is in a relationship with the late Giacomo Puccini. Burnett mines some comic gold out of these eccentricities and the story keeps zig-zagging in unexpected directions, but at heart there is a real tenderness to this film, which explores the complications of finding love late in life when we are carrying too much baggage. The film is a treat and I am so glad it is finally seeing the light of day while Jones and Redgrave are still here to receive the overdue plaudits their outstanding performances deserve, not to mention Burnett, whose entire career has been a series of battles to get his films seen.
One of the great joys of Il Cinema Ritrovato is seeing a restored film being shared with an audience after long being thought lost, and on one particularly memorable afternoon I witnessed two such resurrections. Ossama Mohammed had given up hope of ever seeing his 1988 film Stars in Broad Daylight again, with the Syrian authorities even denying the existence of the film made by this exiled director. After attempts to source prints in Spain failed, Mohammed’s recollection that the film had once played on German TV led Cecilia Cenciarelli to trawl through six years’ worth of German TV guides, and finally a pristine 35mm print was found in a TV archive to serve as the basis for this restoration. Shot through with a streak of black, satirical humour and an energetic spirit that recalls Kusturica, this was terrific discovery, and it was also the most visually exciting film I saw at the festival, with Mohammed finding imaginative and potent compositions in almost every scene.

Sadly, Nirad Mohapatra did not live to see the rebirth of his only feature film Māyā Miriga, as he passed away in 2015, but his son Sandeep Mohapatra was present alongside Shivendra Singh Dungarpur (whose ongoing work to restore and celebrate Indian cinema is indescribably important) to share the story of this project. Having discovered the 16mm negatives languishing in a dire state in an abandoned warehouse, the quality of this restoration is truly remarkable, and the film is a quietly mesmerising drama. Mohapatra follows a middle-class family over the course of many months, with the family patriarch determined that his children must succeed at their exams, obtain respectable jobs and marry well, regardless of how their own desires align with these ideals. This generational tension is intelligently captured by Mohapatra, as the dynamics between characters shift in subtle ways, and he always knows where to place his camera to maximise the spaces within the house wherein the story takes place. Māyā Miriga is a small-scale, independently financed film that seemed lost to us, but this screening revealed its universal resonance and humanity, and we should be immensely grateful that it will now be available for audiences to discover for years to come. In his introduction, Sandeep Mohapatra quoted his father as saying, "We all die. The goal isn't to live forever. The goal is to create something that will." He has now achieved that feat.