Saturday, October 03, 2015

Film concert Maciste alpino (2014 restoration, Museo Nazionale del Cinema, Torino) (with Günter A. Buchwald, Frank Bockius, Phil Carli)

Coll. Museo Nazionale del Cinema, Torino. Click to enlarge.
Serata inaugurale / Opening Night

(Itala Film – IT 1916) D: Luigi Maggi, Luigi Romano Borgnetto; supvr. D: Piero Fosco [Giovanni Pastrone]; story, SC: Giovanni Pastrone; DP: Giovanni Tomatis, Carlo Franzoni, Augusto Battagliotti; FX: Segundo de Chomón; C: Bartolomeo Pagano (Maciste), Fido Schirru (Fritz Pluffer), Enrico Gemelli (Conte di / Count Pratolungo), Marussia Allesti (Giulietta, Contessina di / Countess Pratolungo), Sig. Riccioni (ufficiale degli alpini / Alpini officer), Riccardo Vitaliani (ufficiale austriaco / Austrian officer), Evangelina Vitaliani, Felice Minotti (maître al ristorante, ufficiale alpini  / restaurant manager, Alpini officer); censor date: 21.11.1916, 27.6.1917 (no. 12240); orig. l: 2084 m; DCP (4K, from 35 mm, 1944 m), 95' (transferred at 18 fps), col. (tinted); intertitles: IT, subtitles on the DCP: EN; source: Museo Nazionale del Cinema, Torino. Restored 2014.
    Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (GCM), Pordenone.
    Music performed by: Günter A. Buchwald (pianoforte e violino), Frank Bockius (percussioni), Phil Carli (organo).
    Viewed at Teatro Verdi, 3 Oct 2015

Claudia Gianetto, Gianna Chiapello, Stella Dagna, David Robinson (GCM catalog and website): "Great artists have used film as catharsis for the horrors of war – Chaplin in Shoulder Arms and The Great Dictator, Keaton in The General, and Lubitsch in To Be or Not to Be. In Maciste alpino, Pastrone’s committed team confront one of the most tragic and lethal confrontations of 1914-18 – the “White War”, in which Austrian-Hungarians and Italians found themselves face to face on a 250-mile front, much of it at altitudes of more than 6,000 feet. Italy already had its specialist mountain troops, the Alpini; and Austria-Hungary established their Kaiserschützen. The casualties were colossal: on a single day, at the very time of the release of Maciste alpino, 10,000 soldiers were killed in avalanches. Meanwhile, thousands of civilians died in Italian and Austrian camps."

"When war broke out in 1914, Italy was still a part of the Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and Germany, despite a century of lingering resentment over the territories handed to Austria by the 1815 Congress of Vienna. The Allies saw the virtue of wooing Italy: and, by the secret Treaty of London, on 26 April 1915 the country renounced its obligations to the Triple Alliance, and on 23 May declared war on Austria-Hungary – the opening incident of Maciste alpino. Italy hoped that surprise would bring a swift victory, but the blood-stained White War dragged on until 1918. Today the melting glaciers still yield up the preserved bodies of boy soldiers of a century ago."

"But in late 1916, with the conflict at its height, it was vital to national morale that the Italian public remained aggressive in spirit, convinced of its army’s unassailable superiority, and reassured of the well-being of their sons, brothers, husbands and boyfriends. Hence Italy mobilized to the war effort the beloved good giant of the screen. Maciste – the screen name of Bartolomeo Pagano – had so far appeared in only two films, but had already captured the heart of the nation. He made his debut and acquired his nom d’art in Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914), in the character of an African slave at the time of the Punic wars. In his first film as protagonist, Maciste (1915), he changed era, profession, and skin colour, to present himself as a film actor – and star. Everything about him was now open to change, except the substance of the character – a popular hero who dedicates his phenomenal strength to the service of the weak and oppressed, resolving injustice to the sound of slaps, and with a smile on his lips – a conception which even today is hard to resist."

"Even though the war was no laughing matter, Maciste took command as only he could, kicking the enemy in the seat of their pants. In the outcome Maciste alpino is perhaps the best propaganda film produced in Italy in the course of the First World War, an achievement which is not due only to the sympathy of its leading man. From the point of view of the narrative, the skill in effectively handling in a very light tone the most dramatic and tragic themes remains astonishing: deportation of civilians, life in the trenches, violence on women. The horrors of war are shown, but always in an openly cathartic way. The message is that to ward off the worst, all that is necessary is good sense, good humour, and the strength of Maciste, who – never more than in this film – is at one and the same time superhero and representative of the common man, generous, open, and undefeatable. He transports dozens of refugee children in a basket on his back, constantly worsts the odious Austrian soldier Pluffer, makes certain of the rations (always abundant, as in all the films of the period, to reassure the soldiers’ families that their dear ones at the front did not lack the prime necessities). At the same time, he never fails to ask permission from his superior in rank. For, as a title in the film informs us, “all the sons of Italy are Macisti”."

"On the contrary, the enemy are depicted as treacherous, lazy, and decidedy less intelligent than Italians, in a comic parody of Austrian-Hungarian militarism. The guards leap mechanically to attention before a caricatural drawing of the Kaiser chalked on the wall; the commanders issue confused orders, have no concern for their men during the attack, and do not even respect the rules of chivalrous duel. The underlying message is that we are not two countries in confrontation, but rather two ways of understanding life. As is often the case in propaganda films, this confrontation is incarnated and concentrated in the personal opposition between Maciste and the odious, cowardly, and cruel Fritz Pluffer: an intense “personalization”, stepping aside from the carnage and the lethal arms to symbolize the conflict in a body-to-body “free for all”."

"The film maintains an urgent rhythm, underlined by the energetic editing, while visually it creates scenes which engrave themselves on the memory by their powerful atmosphere, as when, with the arrival of the Austrians at the Pratolungo villa, crowded with silent and terrified refugees, the light in the salon is extinguished, plunging them into darkness. The cinema as a marvel for the eyes is above all celebrated in the fourth part of the film, set on the summit of the snow-covered mountains, and probably the moment in which the supervision and conception of Giovanni Pastrone, who brought together the directors Luigi Maggi and Luigi Romano Borgnetto, is most evident. The spectacular images of the dark shapes of the backlit soldiers as they struggle through the blinding snow reveals a very special feeling for light, the ambiance and its relation with the human figure, but also an exceptional technical command, certainly supported by the team of cameramen assigned for the occasion by the Itala company, but also in particular by the mastery of the wizard of special effects Segundo de Chomón: the image of the soldiers who walk on a wire stretched across the precipice, for example, maintains its intriguing mystery even for today’s over-sophisticated eyes. A trick – or are we seeing the real thing? The white of the ice, the crimson of battle, the soft lights of the Pratolungo villa are enhanced by the beautiful colorization of the period, which the new restoration captures in all its chromatic richness."

"Before going on to its great popular success, Maciste alpino had to confront some troubles with the censor, displeased with Maciste’s somewhat cavalier treatment of the Austrians, made to serve as human sleighs or, in Fritz Pluffer’s case, force-fed with macaroni, and dragged by his hair. For the neutral countries, Itala itself however prepared a version in which the Austrians and Italians were not identified by nationality, but only generically as two opposed fronts."

"The new restoration, thanks to the reintegration of such important scenes as a brief glimpse of King Vittorio Emanuele III, the reconstruction of the original intertitles, and the great effort to restore the original quality of the image and the colour, brings back to modern audiences one of the best films of Italian silent cinema and of Maciste, the giant friend of the people, who even triumphs over the horrors of war.

The Restoration

"The first photo-chemical restoration of Maciste alpino by the Museo Nazionale del Cinema in 2000, from a single nitrate positive held by the museum, could at that time only be regarded as a work-in-progress. The present restoration, a collaboration of the Biennale di Venezia and the Museo Nazionale del Cinema of Turin, with the laboratory L’Immagine Ritrovata, was able to call upon the rich documentation of the Itala Film archives preserved in the Museo, which provided valuable information about the original montage, intertitles, and colouring, as well as the latest advances in digital restoration of early film. The principal filmic materials used included some 800 metres of fragments from the original camera negative and a coloured positive print of 1900 metres, both from the Pastrone archive acquired for the Museo by Maria Adriana Prolo; an incomplete nitrate positive with original intertitles from the Fondazione Cineteca Italiana di Milano, and a nitrate fragment of some 200 metres from the British Film Institute. All the nitrate elements were scanned at 4k resolution. Most importantly, the new restoration reintegrates sequences showing the soldiers on the march, the alpine guide who accompanied the Itala film unit on the mountain heights, and a long hitherto-unknown scene in which Maciste, having captured Pluffer, takes him back to the Alpini camp and halts to salute the sovereign, visiting his troops. (No title identifies the King, but the resemblance to his figure is undeniable.) Other scenes involving the rescue of the old Count Pratolungo, captured by the Austrians after aiding the escape of the Italian prisoners, have been replaced in their correct positions, to bring the film virtually to its original length."

Claudia Gianetto, Gianna Chiapello, Stella Dagna, David Robinson

AA: An amazing comic war action adventure film made during WWI, a hundred years ago.

The horrible White War (Guerra Bianca / Gebirgskrieg) between Italy and Austria took place on the Dolomites (the Alps on the border of Italy and Austria), the mountains we see when we look to the north from Pordenone. As the snow is melting because of global warming 100-year old corpses of Italians and Austrians now emerge from the no longer so eternal ice.

Maciste alpino utterly fails to convey the horror of the unheard-of massacre in WWI. It is a nationalistic war propaganda film where our sons are the heroes, and the enemy (the Austrians) are treacherous cowards. Because of that Maciste alpino fails to reach the status of a great work of art.

That said, it still has a lot to offer.

Although there are three directors (Luigi Maggi, Luigi Romano Borgnetto, Giovanni Pastrone) there is a consistent and impeccable visual style in the movie. The composition, the mise-en-scène, the visual wit and the sharp editing make it a pleasure to watch.

There is a profound comic sensibility in the movie. The laconic approach to the outlandish action sequences has an affinity with Buster Keaton (with the major difference that Bartholomeo Pagano is no Buster Keaton).

The film is full of gags. Maciste opens a food can with his bare hands. He catches an Austrian spy by felling the tree where he is hiding into a river, again with his bare hands. He fells enemies with snowballs. He carries a cannon to the mountain single-handedly. He captures three prisoners and carries them on his shoulder.

Eugene Sandow was the screen's first muscleman (both for Skladanowsky and Edison), and Maciste was the first fictional muscleman hero. There is a direct line of continuation to the 1980s musclemen of the cinema (Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Lundgren, Van Damme, Norris), and especially Rambo II is a relevant point of comparison to Maciste alpino. There are also affinities with Tarzan, but Johnny Weissmuller and other Tarzan performers belong rather to the classical Greek Olympic ideal of the physical harmony of the athlete; they do not flaunt outsized muscles. In the Tarzan tradition there is even some affinity with the Greek ideal of the kalokagathia (καλοκαγαθία): the jungleman as nobleman. But in Maciste there is something of the Barbarian. Like Zorro, Maciste strikes horror in the enemy by the mere appearance of his name: when the Austrians wake up in the morning they discover the signature "Maciste" written in the snow. But I dislike the approach of making the enemy completely ridiculous or despicable.

Maciste is not a romantic hero. Instead, he helps bring together the romantic couple, saving both the girl (a contessa) and the boy (an officer) from the clutches of the Austrians (carrying them both on his shoulder of course).

There are stunning scenes of spectacle in Maciste alpino, especially during the final, Alpine parts of the adventure. Maciste alpino is an important mountain film (Bergfilm) four years before Arnold Fanck. It has a sense of the sublime of the nature. The Alpine cinematography is inventive and inspired. The epic long distance views are breathtaking.

Segundo de Chomón's special effects are again brilliant. The legendary sequence of the cable railway above the abyss (see image below) is unforgettable.

Maciste alpino is the earliest film where I have seen the term "concentration camp" (campo di concentramento).

The music by Günter A. Buchwald, Frank Bockius, Phil Carli was very appealing and energetic, beautifully perfecting the screening experience.

Screened from a DCP, the movie has been restored with tasteful toning and tinting and is a great pleasure to watch. I have no complaints about the digital quality.
Maciste alpino. Coll. Museo Nazionale del Cinema, Torino. Click to enlarge.
Maciste alpino. Coll. Museo Nazionale del Cinema, Torino. Click to enlarge.

No comments: