The blistering sun, an unquenchable thirst, and the dance of the endless waves of heat – welcome to Il Cinema Ritrovato. It’s June in Bologna and the festival is facing an extreme heat wave sweeping across Europe. Ironically, so were a few broken air conditioners. But nothing impedes the loyalty of the Ritrovato pilgrims. Every day the theatres are packed from morning till night. There’s no question the festival attendees are true lovers of classic cinema. Every year the audience grows, but this year it’s even more noticeable, not only in size but how youthful the audience is becoming. This year, the Ritrovato delivered yet another successful festival, thoroughly enjoyed by the always eager attendees.
Of the many retrospectives in the vast and varying programme, Henry King, Eduardo De Filippo, Jean Gabin and Restorations yielded the most treasured films of the festival for me. De Filippo in particular was a joy to behold with every film. His work is a long love letter to his beloved Naples; every film is bathed in the city’s sounds, dialects, and culture. His love for the city and its inhabitants comes from the heart. The glorious prints are a tradition of the Ritrovato, especially the Vintage Technicolor Prints programme. There were great selections, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn and Jacques Tourneur’s Way of a Gaucho, especially the former which is Hitchcock’s most unfairly maligned film. Part Rebecca, part Gaslight and part Wuthering Heights, anchored by a delicate and vulnerable performance by Ingrid Bergman, seeing it on the big screen in a beautiful Technicolor print was a rejuvenating experience. Here are my favourite films of the festival:
4K Restoration | Jean Epstein | France 1929 | 80 min | Programme: Restorations
Four men on a desolate island are harvesting seaweed. They have limited resources of food and water. The two younger men are friends, but an argument over a lost knife and a broken bottle of wine creates a rift and the makings of a tense working day. When one of them slices his thumb on a piece of broken glass and becomes infected, the illness is interpreted as laziness, but soon it becomes apparent that he is in danger. There is a dead calm at sea, which makes crossing to the main island impossible. Master filmmaker Jean Epstein has crafted a tense drama in natural settings, evocative of Jean Gremillon’s The Lighthouse Keepers and Michael Powell’s The Edge of the World. The inhabitants are playing themselves, delivering realistic performances. Epstein uses the sea, the wind, the jagged rocks and cliffs to effectively create an atmosphere of desperation and the violence of nature. The 4K restoration is impeccable.
35mm | Nikolaj Dostal | USSR 1990 | 81 min | Programme: Restorations
It begins with a young man in a remote village singing a song he has composed. He is happy, he greets his neighbours, meets his friends. All is well. There is vibrancy of life everywhere. An argument with his girlfriend and her mother changes his day and future drastically. Acting impulsively, he decides to leave the village to go to the other side of the country, far away. What transpires over the rest of the film is a series of preparations as the young man sells his belongings and packs his solitary borrowed suitcase for departure. As this is happening, the entire village comes together in his tiny room, advising him, wishing him well. His decision has brought hope to the village, his courage has inspired his people. A melancholy suddenly clouds over him because he doesn’t know what to do next. The beauty of the film is in these inexplicable moments. It is exquisitely shot from all angles, mostly vertical, to give a surreal look, with an abundance of details all packed into the square aspect ratio, in a lovely 35mm print. The bittersweet finale of tears and hope is stylishly choreographed. Winner of the Silver Leopard and Ecumenical Prize at the Locarno Film Festival, this is a remarkable film.
35mm | Pierre Granier-Deferre | France 1970 | 89 min | Programme: Jean Gabin
As one of the characters says, there should be a law forcing people to separate if they can no longer stand each other. After being married for many years an aged couple, played by Jean Gabin and Simone Signoret, are full of hate for each other, so much so that they do not speak unless necessary. The only creature he cares for is his cat, the one thing that puts a smile on his face. As husband and wife refuse to separate due to pride, their daily routine is filled with bitterness and solitude. They shop separately at the local store, sometimes right behind each other. They have no love, no children, and perhaps they stay together because they have nowhere to go. Set in an area in Paris where older buildings are being demolished by a wrecking ball, the detached house stands alone, awaiting destruction. The metaphoric symbolism of this as it relates to the characters is inescapable. The photography and setting are deliberately dark and claustrophobic creating the desired impact in the beautiful 35mm print. She has her wine, her pills and nothing else. But he has his cat, Greffier, his constant companion. She hates the cat, not for itself but because her husband loves it. She destroys her husband’s things by sabotage to make it look as if it was done by claws, blaming the cat. On a busy day at the grocery, she drops the cat off in the seafood section, where it welcomes the buffet. The cat does not come back, and the battle is on. It baffles me how this film remains unknown. At the end of their long careers, Gabin and Signoret are brilliant. They both won Silver Bears for their performances at the Berlin Film Festival. This is an acrimonious experience that is eventually an exercise in what loneliness does to the spirit when everything else runs out.
IN CASE OF ADVERSITY
35mm | Claude Autant-Lara | France 1957 | 124 min | Programme: Jean Gabin
With two major stars and a talented director, the film afterwards being attacked, maligned, and censored, then reassessed as great, this gem is practically unknown. Jean Gabin plays a lawyer who defends a young Brigitte Bardot, guilty of assault and robbery. He falls in love and into trouble. She – young, damaged, kind – falls in luck and into a trap. Following her is a former lover, played with sorrowful menace by an intriguing Franco Interlenghi, who will stop at nothing to get her back. Following Gabin’s every move is his seemingly agreeable wife. But make no mistake, this is not a thriller. It is an original, unclassifiable drama dripping with sex and spite. Wait for the ménage à trois that comes out of the blue. The film belongs to Bardot, not for her beauty but for her superlative performance. She steals every scene, which says a lot as she is acting opposite Gabin for most of the film. It proves that with the right director and a great script actors known mainly for their sex appeal and beauty can indeed shine.
35mm | Eduardo De Filippo | Italy 1951 | 102 min | Programme: Eduardo De Filippo
Who knew there was an original Marriage Italian Style? One of the great Italian films of the ’50s remains unknown outside of Italy. Sacrilegious. Titina De Filippo all but burns the screen down with her powerful yet desperate performance as the long-suffering mistress and housekeeper of a man, played by director Eduardo De Filippo. He has used and abused her over the decades and she tolerates his affairs that he flaunts around the house. This time it’s too much, and she decides to take matters into her own hands. She fakes a near-death episode and becomes his wife. Secretly having had three sons over the decades, she reveals to him that one of them is his, and all she wants is his name for her sons. What ensues is a battle of wit and determination. There isn’t a single false note in this film. It is definitely unlike the comedy De Sica made the following decade. And vastly superior.
OVER THE HILL
DCP | Henry King | USA 1931 | 91 min | Programme: Henry King
It opens on a warm, bustling kitchen, where Mother is preparing breakfast for her four children and husband. The setting is countryside Americana, and one can almost smell the eggs, toast and coffee. The opening 10 minutes of this beautiful film are so breath-taking, I can still visualize the images of an idyllic country life. Mae Marsh plays one of the great mother roles of all time in this neglected film. In the tradition of Honour Thy Mother stories, she loves her children, devotes her entire life to them. The difference here, and this is what makes Henry King’s wonderful film so special, is that Mother never distinguishes among her children. She expects nothing, asks for nothing, and when faced with betrayal and tragedy, she never points a finger but accepts it as what life has ordained. And no, she is not a victim, nor does she seek sympathy. Not once does she complain to anyone. If one can accuse her of anything, it would be kindness and understanding. As her children are grown and living their lives, circumstances force her to seek lodging with them. Passed from son to son to son to daughter, it becomes evident that she has nowhere else to go but over the hill to the poorhouse. Henry King treats this depression-era drama as a cautionary tale that when all else fails in life, family will always be there. But he is never judgmental. The film belongs to Mae Marsh, but the rest of the cast is just as compelling. Based on Will Carleton’s 1897 poem “Over the Hill to the Poor-house,” this is a profoundly overwhelming experience that transcends cinema.
SPRING NIGHT, SUMMER NIGHT
4K Restoration | Joseph L. Anderson | USA 1967 | 83 min | Programme: Restorations
A bold American independent film set and filmed in rural Ohio, Spring Night, Summer Night tells the story of a doomed romance between a brother and half-sister. The rumour is they are related, but gossip informs us they may not be. When she becomes pregnant and refuses to say who the father is, we are stunned not by her loyalty to her brother, but by her strength and persistence in not wanting to even discuss it. She never crumbles or becomes a victim. She holds her head up amidst a series of speculations about the possible miscreants as her father investigates. Shot in stark black and white, this American neorealist gem is a rare and delicate film, steeped in an ambiguity which makes it so compelling. Akin to the films of John Cassavetes, Charles Burnett and especially Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts, this censored and abandoned film has been reconstructed, and what a gorgeous restoration it is. Using non-actors and existing light to shoot, the cast and crew volunteered their time with the expectation that they would partake in any future profits. Alas, that was not to be. Championed by Nicolas Winding Refn, as he provided the funding for the restoration.
35mm | Henry King | USA 1950 | 86 min | Programme: Henry King
As great as the greatest of all Westerns, this gem is yet another example of how overlooked Henry King remains in the annals of cinema. Although The Gunfighter is well-known, I don’t believe Henry King gets the credit for his taut and atmospheric direction or the success of the film. Gregory Peck delivers arguably his second or third best performance after To Kill a Mockingbird. He rides into town, a feared killer, a wanted man, a myth, a target. But all he wants is to see the woman he loves and the son who doesn’t know him. Things naturally don’t go as planned as there are a few who want to see if notoriety lives up to its reputation, or if they will be the one to dissolve the myth. Tense, lean and mean, with not one frame wasted, not one scene superfluous, this film should rank among the great westerns like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, High Noon, Winchester ’73, Once Upon a Time in the West. A sense of doom hangs over the town, and Peck’s fatigued face and resigned outlook provide this film with an authenticity often lacking in Westerns. All substance delivered with great panache, this is one of the best films of the ’50s.
NAPOLETANI A MILANO
35mm | Eduardo De Filippo | Italy 1953 | 103 min | Programme: Eduardo De Filippo
When their Napoli slum dwelling is threatened with demolition by the operators of a Milanese factory, the feisty inhabitants go to their elected spokesman and leader, Don Salvatore, played by director Eduardo De Filippo. He hatches a plan to keep their homes intact by dedicating a building in the slum to Garibaldi. The court decides otherwise, and the demolition starts. When some inhabitants die during a building collapse, the Napoletani take their grievance en masse to Milan, confronting the board members of the factory. Compensation is not granted, but instead they are all offered jobs. A ruse by the factory, as it is assumed that the Napoletani will never want to work and will refuse the offer. They don’t. Reminiscent of Mario Monicelli’s The Organizer, De Filippo has created something different here. Part social commentary, a bit political, sometimes comedic, profoundly human, but always about family.
4K Restoration | Manoel de Oliveira | Portugal 1959 | 59 min | Programme: Restorations
At once a meditation on our daily sustenance and the cyclical nature of life through rebirth, Oliveira’s film is anything but a one-hour documentary about bread. It’s about the dignity of humankind, with bread as the imperative force that compels us to keep going. This kind of cinema is so pure; only a humanist like Oliveira could have fashioned an artful film about bread, at the same time critiquing the industry, labour management, poverty, excess and consumerism. There are scenes of starved faces, shot through bakery windows, and modern methods of milling with cuts to village stone milling. The flow of the film is like a stream where we see how from the single grain, it develops into something different in another location, and as the people change, so do the music, the faces, the streets. Oliveira captures the cycle of planting, growth, harvesting, transporting, sorting, packing, milling, laboratory testing, quality analysis, baking, consumption, supply, demand; and then finally the seed returns to the earth, and the final images are of planting and fields of sun-baked, golden beads of our daily sustenance.
4K Restoration | Buster Keaton, Edward Segwick | USA 1928 | 70 min | Programme: Buster Keaton
A major work from the genius, Buster Keaton. The Ritrovato’s tribute to Keaton provided an opportunity for me to discover many of his films, and this one is the best. After falling in love with an MGM newsreel office employee, a street photographer joins the newsreel department at MGM, so he can be close to his beloved. Nothing goes well for him as one can imagine. The first half of the film is filled with sight gags as he misses and messes every opportunity. But the second half is when our cameraman goes into full gear as he is presented with a chance to prove himself as a competent professional. He stumbles on a big story and sets out to capture it with his camera. Keaton, ahead of his time, employed the camera as a device which for the first time in cinema is being placed in the forefront, while the other unseen movie camera films his actions of capturing and reporting the truth for posterity. It anticipates the great films about films, and films within a film. A monkey is brilliantly used as a motif of the imitation of art, but slyly under the auspices of the news.
35mm | Stanley Donen | USA 1958 | 102 min | Programme: Vintage Technicolor Prints
A complete surprise and a most welcome one. Why isn’t this film considered one of the great romantic comedies of classic cinema? Brimming with intelligence and wit, this is the kind of film you watch with a smile on your face throughout. When Cary Grant is introduced to Ingrid Bergman, there is an adult attraction. Then he reveals that he is married but is sort of separated. She is turned off, but still intrigued. A few innocent rendezvous later they have fallen for each other. That quickly changes when she finds out that all is not as it seems with him. She sets a plan in motion to teach him a lesson. Dismissed by some as light material, I couldn’t disagree more. This is a meticulously designed film, directed by Donen with restraint. The set design and fabrics alone are worth the price of admission. Make no mistake, Ingrid Bergman turns in a superb performance, so different from Under Capricorn, which highlights her range.
35mm | Henry King | USA 1958 | 100 min | Programme: Henry King
The most gorgeous print of the festival! Henry King’s underrated revenge drama ranks among the best of its genre. Gregory Peck, stoic and righteous, rides into town to witness the hanging of four men. We don’t know why, but when they escape he is the first to lend his assistance to hunt them down. Slowly it is revealed that these men are responsible for the rape and killing of his wife. This powerful, brooding film benefits from Peck’s performance, King’s astute direction and Leon Shamroy’s stunning Cinemascope cinematography. The colour by Deluxe is incredible. There are shots of the night skies bathed in a blue unlike any other. It should be noted that there is one impediment in this great film, and that’s Joan Collins as the Latina love interest. Not only did her dialogue delivery (“Kill them! Kill them! Kill them!“) draw laughter, but she may be the most Anglophonic Latina ever on screen. Nevertheless, her role is minuscule. What transcends the film for me is the finale. It is what some critics see as the film’s failure, but for me it reaffirms why Henry King’s filmography is so exciting and eclectic.