Saturday, July 05, 2014

Il Cinema Ritrovato 2014 afterthoughts

A screening at Piazza Maggiore. Photo: Cinefilia Ritrovata, 14 July 2014. Click to enlarge.
The centennial of the First World War was a central theme in this year's Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna. Hundreds of hours of authentic WWI footage have been preserved and made available online. However, as the great French historian Marc Ferro has stated, no non-fiction film footage manages to convey the horror of the war as the best fiction films have done ("Les images d'archives ne créent pas l'horreur comme la fiction", Marc Ferro interviewed in Le Monde Télévision, 3 Jan 2014).

Screened in Bologna was the prophetic Ned med Vaabnene / Lay Down Your Arms! (DK 1914) directed by Holger-Madsen, written by Carl Th. Dreyer and based on the novel by Bertha von Suttner, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Remarkably, the film was released just before WWI and displays an opening vignette of Bertha von Suttner months before her death. The film has been beautifully preserved by the Danish Film Institute.

As we have seen in stunning images during the last years in Il Cinema Ritrovato's A Hundred Years Ago project, the peace movement was powerful preceding the great war. Alas, the movement did not prevent the war, but the foundation of pacifism was getting stronger. Precedents and models were set.

The strongest film of the festival for me was Les Croix de bois / Wooden Crosses (FR 1931), produced by Bernard Natan, directed by Raymond Bernard and based on the novel by Roland Dorgelès. More than a movie, it became a WWI memorial, accepted as truthful by the veterans themselves. Pabst and Milestone had just released their WWI masterpieces, and, having seen them, Bernard went even further in his attempt to convey the horror that transcends the limits of ordinary understanding. - Bernard and Antonin Artaud were not veterans (they were not passed to the military because of medical reasons) but Natan and most of the cast were.

Two of the directors of the main retrospectives were coincidentally veterans of WWI. William A. Wellman fought first in the French and then in the U.S. Air Force and was invalidized for life with back injury. Merciless back pains finally interrupted his film career in the early 1960s. Of Wellman's 11 flying movies none were screened in Bologna. (Instead, we saw three of his train films.) We saw Wellman's breakthrough film, the Murnau-influenced triangle drama of Russian circus acrobats You Never Know Women (1926), a Florence Vidor vehicle for Paramount. Producers such as David O. Selznick, Darryl F. Zanuck and John Wayne could cope with "Wild Bill". Wild Boys of the Road (1933) belongs to the key Depression era films in the Warner Bros. mode of social consciousness. The unglamorous Westward the Women (1952) from MGM, the studio of glamour, impresses with harsh truths about the 1850s gold rush. Good-bye, My Lady (1956), Wellman's final film for John Wayne and Robert Fellows, displays tact in a growing-up story about an orphan boy and the dog he has to give away.

Werner Hochbaum was a WWI veteran, too. We saw highlights of the short career of the master who became one of the best German-language film directors remaining in Germany and Austria after Hitler's ascent to power. Hochbaum kept the great art of the Weimar cinema alive as long as he could. Brüder / Brothers (DE 1929), a milestone of militant cinema, is a sober account of Hamburg's epochal dockers' strike of 1896-1897. Razzia in St. Pauli (DE 1932) is an atmospheric, perhaps Sternberg-influenced, tale of the Hamburg underworld. Morgen beginnt das Leben / Life Begins Tomorrow (DE 1933), characterized by Alexander Horwath as the final great example of German interwar cinema, takes us to Berlin, to the stream of consciousness of a musician who is released from prison. He has committed manslaughter in the heat of the moment, the victim being a restaurant owner who had tried to take advantage of his wife. In its visual inspiration the film can be compared with the best Weimar achievements and can also be seen as an hommage to them. After the ascent of Hitler Hochbaum moved to Vienna, and we saw Vorstadtvarieté / Suburban Cabaret (AT 1933), a love story across class boundaries, Ophulsian in its sense of the life force vs. the death drive - the world of the music hall versus the world of the military. Hochbaum was back in Germany before the Anschluss, and with Ein Mädchen geht an Land / A Girl Goes Ashore (DE 1938) Hochbaum returned to Hamburg (albeit mostly shooting at Ufa Studios) creating an unromantic drama of a woman of inner dignity who changes the lives of those who meet her. A film of conformism or about transcending prevailing conditions.

The third retrospective I focused on was The Golden 1950s: India's Endangered Classics curated by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, a case of film programming of the highest order, bringing fresh sense and depth to our understanding of the magnificent cultural legacy of the world's biggest film-producing country. "It was difficult for me to choose just eight films from the three major film industries of the time – Bombay, Madras and Calcutta", stated Shivendra Singh. Chandralekha (S. S. Vasan, 1948) is a singing and dancing fairy-tale blockbuster crucial to the development of the film culture of the newly independent India. Awara / The Vagabond (Raj Kapoor, 1951) brings Chaplinian inspiration to a delirious Oedipal melodrama of extreme injustice, set in the palace of a noble judge and the slums of Bombay. Do bigha zamin / Two Acres of Land (Bimal Roy, 1953), inspired by Vittorio De Sica (Bicycle Thieves), charts the adventures of a farmer father and son in Calcutta to earn the money needed to redeem their land from a greedy landlord. In Ajantrik / Pathetic Fallacy (Ritwik Ghatak, 1957) the saga of a taxi driver's perseverance with his 35 year old jalopy expands into epic insights into Indian reality. Bharat mata / Mother India (Mehboob Khan, 1957) is the mother of Indian cinema: a bigger-than-life melodrama of exploitation, survival, reconstruction, and struggle against overwhelming circumstances of nature and society. Pyaasa / The Thirsty One (Guru Dutt, 1957) is a grand story of a poète maudit, his fight against injustice, incomprehension, and madness. Madhumati (Bimal Roy, 1958, based on a story by Ritwik Ghatak), a haunting supernatural love story set in sublime landscapes, is also an exposé of corruption in a massive scale. Kaagaz ke phool / Paper Flowers (Guru Dutt, 1959) is a formidable meta-film letting us see many aspects of a big studio production behind the screen; and like Pyaasa, it is another tragic study of a suffering, misunderstood artist, interpreted by the director himself.

The directors displayed in the Indian retrospective (Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy, Ritwik Ghatak, Mehboob Khan, Guru Dutt) are famous, and although many of them died young, they have never been forgotten. Shivendra Singh Dungarpur's programming highlighted the generation experience: these were young men full of hope who came from villages to cities, and generated a new vision, a new myth, a new kind of cinema full of excitement and poetry during the first decade of independent India. Their cinema was an important factor in the spiritual regeneration and reconstruction of India.

70.000 Indian films [correct me if I got this number wrong] have been made in 32 languages, most have been lost, and even the preservation status of the most famous masterpieces is precarious. This preservation mission is urgent.

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