Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Luca Comerio 3 - Prog. 1

Sixième bataille de l'Isonzo (IT 1916), D: Luca Comerio. Photo: Archives françaises du film du CNC, Bois d’Arcy.

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone.
    Grand piano: Mauro Colombis.
    Teatro Verdi, e-subtitles in English and Italian, 3 Oct 2017.

Sergio M. Grmek Germani (GCM 2017):
Never Praise the Day before Night: Wars and the Post-War Period in the Work of Luca Comerio

"In the 1940 LUCE newsreel item about the death of Luca Comerio, shown at the Giornate last year in the second part of our three-year programme devoted to the film-maker, the pompous but never sincerely moved voice of the commentator describes him as a “humble but courageous cameraman” – an apparent tribute which nevertheless displays all the belittling to which Comerio has been subjected. He was certainly a great cameraman (and before that a photographer of still pictures which already suggested movement), but he was also and always a film-maker, a total director. It was not until Mario Bava (a comparison by no means unjustified if we consider Bava’s documentary work) that there appeared in Italian cinema a similar ability to translate the role of a cameraman into that of a director, even before he officially declared himself to be one."

"Yet those four words uttered by the LUCE newsreel’s voiceover commentary reflect many other misconceptions about Comerio. They fix him in the universe (which is by contrast a fluid one) of the documentary, of films of the real, whereas a present-day viewing of his fictional work – not only comic – reveals a strong mise-en-scène, able to augment documentaries with reconstructed scenes. These add the truth of fiction to the (always suspect) truth of documented reality, and at the same time endow his fiction films with a transparency, with their flagrant presences, which make them among the most original and free in Italian silent cinema."

"In those words, “humble but courageous”, also lurks a double falsehood. Comerio was certainly capable of real modesty (it is no coincidence that he was not celebrated as a film-maker either by the critics or officialdom), but certainly not in the sense, as the words would imply, that he was at the service of the powers-that-be (as a royal photographer, or a sole chronicler of colonial wars and the Great War…), and so he was called “courageous” not because of any real risks entailed by his work shooting with a camera, but in the sense of a campaign medal awarded to a soldier who must accept his destiny even though he has no love for war or death."

"Cinema teaches us, however, that from every falsehood the truth will out. This is shown in a seminal book by Milanese journalist Paolo Valera (1850-1926) on the Milan uprising put down in 1898 by General Bava-Beccaris, who ordered troops to fire on civilians, for which he was disgracefully rewarded by the King of Italy, provoking oaths of anarchist vendetta. For Comerio – then a photographer, not yet a film-maker – this revolt was his first “set”. It was an episode fiercely denounced at the time by Valera, along with Anna Kulischov and other socialists and anarchists (which rightly caused leading Italian Communist Amadeo Bordiga to say that before fascism Francesco Crispi and Bava-Beccaris had not been any less brutal), and also later in the two editions of Valera’s book (La sanguinosa settimana del Maggio ’98 [The Bloody Week of May ’98], 1907, and Le terribili giornate del maggio ’98 [The Terrible Days of May ’98], 1913). No film historian who has written about Comerio has mentioned this book, and its revealing chapter “The Photographer of the Barricades”, in which an intransigent Valera reproached Comerio for placing himself at the service of the authorities, but also pointed out that, talking about how he took his pictures of civil war, risking his own personal safety, Comerio admitted quite frankly: “I was always cap-in-hand, and the only language I used was that of the servant, even when I had Bava-Beccaris’s safe-conduct pass in my pocket.” The same was true of his documenting of the colonial wars in Africa and the war in Europe that became the First World War. Comerio could accept a safe-conduct pass from Luigi Cadorna [Chief of Staff of the Italian Army] or any other commander, but he knew he also had to be a servant in a deeper sense – seeking glimmers of truth in the scenes he had to film."

"The aim of the third part of our tribute is to complete the presentation of this great director. In the first year we concentrated on some of his masterful footage from the First World War. In the second we attempted to reconstruct his artistic development by emphasizing the presence of various “pre-wars” presaging the full-scale conflict to come. This year, besides some necessary additions of footage of the Italo-Turkish War (1912) and the First World War, we focus on the post-war period, a particularly difficult time for Comerio, the inter-war years between the end of the First World War and the beginning of the Second, which he did not live to see. While his film chronicles of D’Annunzio’s exploits in Fiume are currently not available for projection, there is abundant, as well as original, evidence of the attention he devoted to the rise of Fascism, and its exploitation of the myth of the fighting man and the rhetoric of death, stemming from the Great War."

"In this year’s two-part programme, however, our aim is to confirm Comerio’s merits as a total film-maker, so each programme opens with a visually inventive film outside the realm of political history. Il baco da seta (The Silkworm; 1909), anticipates the subject matter of Roberto Omegna, and Jean Painlevé in France, while Il carnevale di Nizza (1913) is a prelude to the great Jean Vigo’s À propos de Nice (1930). Each programme concludes with a comic film from 1914, just before Italy entered the First World War, featuring characters created by Edoardo Ferravilla (1846-1915), a widely loved although regional comic actor and playwright of Milanese dialect theatre. The remarkable thing about these comedy films, precious records of one of the greatest theatres Italy has ever produced, is that they are not confined to “filmed theatre”, but liberally underscore Comerio’s rapport with history and the characters of politics. In La class di asen a portrait of the King of Italy dominating the background acts as an extension within the scene of a figure that features in his other films. In Tecoppa & C. the parody of spiritualism becomes a mocking summoning back to life of all the dead in the historical events characterized in the war footage shot by Comerio."

"Comerio’s films are striking in their profound piety; be they records of the 1909 Messina earthquake (shown last year) or the battlefields of war, their dead – even when the propagandists who commissioned them wished to play down the number of “our” dead or celebrate the number of enemy casualties – are for Comerio above all ordinary victims of tragic events. It was hardly coincidental that in 1962 when Cecilia Mangini, Lino Del Fra, and Lino Miccichè made All’armi siam fascisti! they found in Comerio’s films the most hard-eyed representation of Italian colonialism: the tracking shot of hanged Libyans they edited into their picture goes beyond any servile role of a film-maker towards the commissioners of a film – it serves only the freedom of the gaze, and thus becomes a true document, one of the most revealing in what was a radically anti-Fascist film."

"To this day, among the repertoire of sequences documenting the First World War, some of Comerio’s footage retains a supreme iconic force. This year we are finally able to screen La sixième bataille de l’Isonzo, a film we wanted to show two years ago, but which was wrongly labelled in the archives as Les Annales de la guerre no. 8 and has now been correctly identified. This film about the capture of Gorizia contains some images which would encapsulate any war, such as soldiers entering a town and coming across a funeral procession, with an intersection of movement that makes the sequence a masterpiece, confirming what critic Roberto Turigliatto said last year when he saw Comerio’s film on the Messina earthquake: “here every shot becomes a masterpiece”. This comment astutely expresses the idea of how in Comerio’s work, photography is always the source of mise-en-scène, a concentration of thought, image, and feeling that is among the highest in cinema."

"Last year we borrowed the title of one of Comerio’s films, Dalla pietà all’amore/Compassion and Love, to describe the entire programme. It indicates movement, as do some of his other titles: Dal Polo all’Equatore (rediscovered and remade by Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi in 1987) and Dal Grappa al mare, whose digital restoration by Rome’s Cineteca Nazionale has reinstated its proper title (it had been mistakenly catalogued as Cimiteri degli eroi). From some of these examples it is clear that work on Comerio’s cinema is still in its early stages, even though when the Cineteca Italiana was founded in Milan a discovery made by Luigi Comencini revealed the splendour of a film we screened last year, L’avventura galante di un provinciale (1908), and now the same archive has found and is restoring Piero Mazzarella’s collection of films featuring Edoardo Ferravilla. The Cineteca Italiana also holds the great comedy film that we presented last year under its German title, Man soll den Tag nicht vor Abend loben. We have now identified it under its original 1912 Italian title, which we are using as the title of this year’s programme, because it seems to sum up the uncertainty with which historical events can presage new wars: Non si deve mai lodare il giorno prima della notte / Never Praise the Day before Night."

"We are particularly happy that our three Comerio programmes have contained contributions and restorations from all of Italy’s FIAF archives: Rome, Milan, Bologna (with its precious work on Kinemacolor), Gemona, and Turin (source of the reconstruction of Captain F.E. Kleinschmidt’s Arctic Hunt – which Comerio did not direct, but acquired and edited footage from it into his Dal Polo all’Equatore), as well as the archives of LUCE, the AIRSC, the Associazione Hommelette, and the Fondazione dei Caduti di Rovereto. The scope of contributions to our programmes has been further broadened by items found in foreign archives and collections – evidence of how Comerio stood as one of Italian cinema’s greatest international representatives, effectively exploding the nationalistic myths which led Italy into the First World War."

"Several excellent studies on Comerio exist, notably Aldo Bernardini’s filmographies; the pioneering Luca Comerio fotografo e cineasta, published by Electa in 1979; Moltiplicare l’istante, published by Il Castoro in 2007; Luca Comerio. Milanese. Fotografo, pioniere e padre del cinema italiano, the homage by Paolo Pillitteri and Davide Mengacci published by Spirali in 2011; and the recent researches by Maria Assunta Pimpinelli, all of which open Comerio’s universe to numerous philological and aesthetic questions, to which we have attempted to make a contribution in this three-year review, pursuing some insights which bear further examination."

"This third part of our journey (which we could call “From Comerio to Comerio”, with the same planetary perspective as his Dal Polo all’Equatore [From the Pole to the Equator]) also encounters what we might call the most “losing” moment of Comerio’s film career: when the Fascist regime consolidated its grip on power by centralizing the records of various military archives and documentary production in LUCE, it mistreated Comerio, rejecting his attempts to place himself “at its service”. Out of this emerged feature-length pieces such as Dal Grappa al mare, containing beautiful images easily attributable to this supreme film-maker (e.g., the country cemetery with two old women, one kneeling, the other approaching the wooden crosses, while a disturbing little girl passes across the background, obviously discovering here the rituals of death), but submerged in a construction that deprived Comerio of his own signature intertitles, substituting instead rhetorical lines from Carducci on Trieste, D’Annunzio on Fiume, and Giuseppe Ellero on Gorizia, Caporetto, and Udine, “the capital of the war”. In short, we are closer here to  LUCE’s pompous Gloria by Omegna, than the collective Gloria. Apoteosi del soldato ignoto, an “apotheosis of the unknown soldier” in which the ferocity of death is removed from propaganda, or the pioneer female director Elvira Giallanella’s fable Umanità (1920) and the writer Chino Ermacora’s “piccola patria” (“little country”). In 1940, the year of Comerio’s death, another great director, Ferdinando Maria Poggioli, made a new version of Addio giovinezza! (whose title can also be read as Addio, “Giovinezza” – Farewell, “Youth”), a reference to the Italian Fascist national hymn, which was also the title of a fine film Comerio made in 1922, and included in this programme, about a rally with Mussolini in Milan. Though one of his most “servile” films, its gaze is free; perhaps indeed it is the only film in which Mussolini, the man who makes history, even if with the determination to force himself upon others, appears to us a perplexed and mysterious enigma.
" Sergio M. Grmek Germani

IL BACO DA SETA (Der Seidenwurm) / [The Silk Worm] (IT 1909), 35 mm, 151 m, 8′ (16 fps); titles: GER, source: BFI National Archive, London.
    AA: A sober nature documentary, a scientific record on the silk worm. Bad visual quality in high contrast.

LA GUERRA ITALO-TURCA / [The Italian-Turkish War] (IT 1912) Fragment of an episode from the series, 35 mm, 61 m, 3′ (16 fps); titles: ITA, source: Fondazione CSC – Cineteca Nazionale, Roma.
    AA: Non-fiction. Epic footage of big guns and cavalry charges.

La gloriosa battaglia del 12 marzo (IT 1912), Luca Comerio. Photo: Fondazione CSC – Cineteca Nazionale, Roma.

LA GLORIOSA BATTAGLIA DEL 12 MARZO: A BENGASI NELL’OASI DELLE DUE PALME / [The Glorious Battle of March the 12th: Benghazi in the Oasis of Two Palms] (IT 1912), followed by a fragment [Costruzione delle trincee / The Construction of Trenches] (IT 1912), DCP (restored from 35 mm), 11′; titles: ITA, source: Fondazione CSC – Cineteca Nazionale, Roma.
    AA: Non-fiction shot in the Benghazi Redoubt with a palm as a look-out point. Good visual quality with impressive long shots, partly damaged. The fragment Costruzione delle trincee: 2017 restoration. Trenches levelled to the ground, preparation of mines, views from the trenches to the shores of Tripoli, with Ain-Zara minaret, a mediocre visual quality.

THE VICTORIOUS BATTLE FOR THE CONQUEST OF MERGHEB, AFRICA (IT 1912), DCP (from 16 mm), 4′; titles: ENG, source: La Cineteca del Friuli, Gemona.
    AA: The Red Cross tends to the wounded. The return of the cavalry to the conquered position. A zeppelin and a pile of corpses. A cavalry charge, the fleeing enemy, the stronghold of Mergheb, Eritrian ascars. Visual quality: from 16 mm.

LA VITA DEI NOSTRI: ASCARI ERITREI IN LIBIA (IT 1912), DCP (restored from 35 mm, Kinemacolor), 9′; titles: ITA, source: Cineteca di Bologna.
    AA: Restored in 2017 in 4K in Kinecolor. Men at work, walls are erected, a mobile camera, soldiers at sport exercises. Visual quality weak but intriguing.

Plotoni nuotatori della 3ª divisione cavalleria comandata da S.A.R. il conte di Torino (IT 1912), Luca Comerio. Photo: Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna.

Plotoni nuotatori della 3ª divisione cavalleria comandata da S.A.R. il conte di Torino (IT 1912), Luca Comerio. Photo: Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna.

PLOTONI NUOTATORI DELLA 3ª DIVISIONE CAVALLERIA COMANDATA DA S.A.R. IL CONTE DI TORINO (IT 1912), DCP (restored from 35 mm, Kinemacolor), 9′; titles: ITA, source: Cineteca di Bologna.
    AA: Restored in 2016 in 4K in Kinemacolor. Horses haul pontoons.

Sixième bataille de l'Isonzo (IT 1916), Luca Comerio. Photo: Archives françaises du film du CNC, Bois d’Arcy.

Sixième bataille de l'Isonzo (IT 1916), Luca Comerio. Photo: Archives françaises du film du CNC, Bois d’Arcy.

Sixième bataille de l'Isonzo (IT 1916), Luca Comerio. Photo: Archives françaises du film du CNC, Bois d’Arcy.

SIXIÈME BATAILLE DE L’ISONZO (IT 1916), French version of La battaglia di Gorizia (IT 1916), 35 mm, 170 m, 9′ (18 fps); titles: FRA, source: Archives françaises du film du CNC, Bois d’Arcy.
    AA: Title on screen: La Guerre de la montagne. Establishing shots on mountain bridges and ruins after battles. Shells are inserted, shooting angles set to the infernal valley. A response to the enemy artillery. The images are often much less informative than the intertitles. A pan on the Isonzo. The troops attack Gorizia. City war. The cavalry enters the city. The count of Turin guards the city. Bread and blankets to the prisoners. Good visual quality.

Resistere! (IT 1918), Luca Comerio. Photo: Cineteca Italiana, Milano.

RESISTERE! (IT 1918), DCP, 9′; titles: ITA, source: Cineteca Italiana, Milano.
    AA: The cavalry enters the city. A tank rolls over trenches. A flag is waving. A propaganda montage. Superimposed visions. Marching troops. Defending the borders God gave us. Enlist! Resist! Air force. Eugenio Chiesa. A film de montage. A huge cannon. A cavalry charge. A mountain range. Impressive footage on war at sea. Impressive tinting and toning.

"Giovinezza, giovinezza, primavera di bellezza!" L'adunata dei fascisti Lombardi a Milano (marzo 1922) (IT 1922), Luca Comerio. In the center: Benito Mussolini. Photo: Cineteca Italiana, Milano.

“GIOVINEZZA, GIOVINEZZA, PRIMAVERA DI BELLEZZA!” L’ADUNATA DEI FASCISTI LOMBARDI A MILANO (MARZO 1922) / ["Youth, Youth, Springtime of Beauty!" The Assembly of Lombardian Fascists in Milano (March 1922)] (IT 1922), DCP, 13′; titles: ITA, source: Cineteca Italiana, Milano.
    AA: Fascinating documentary footage on Benito Mussolini in the year 1922 when he became Prime Minister of Italy. The march of the black shirts. A noi! Youth, youth, springtime of beauty! A Fascist parade movie. Even children make Fascist greetings. Fascio Milanese. Mussolini gives a speech from a balcony. A big parade. The visual quality is good in the beginning, often not so good.

    AA: The King of Italy visits the Pirelli factory at Bicocca. A high angle shot of the magnificent industrial area. The Pirellis welcome the King who arrives by car. The purification of rubber. The production of tyres, electric power cord and telephone wires. Huge cable reels. Electricity tests. Electronic conductiors. Submarine cables. The Bicocca Castle. Medals of merit to 12 workers. A huge crowd.

La class di Asen (IT 1914), Luca Comerio. Photo: Cineteca Italiana, Milano.

LA CLASS DI ASEN (IT 1914), DCP (restored from 35 mm), 16′; titles: ITA. source: Cineteca Italiana, Milano.
    AA: Fiction, poem intertitles in dialect, a school farce that takes place during the final exams. A bit wearisome.

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