Nostalgia of the Silent Kind

Moen Mohamed is a guest contributor not directly connected with ICS.

A festival experience unlike any other, the Pordenone Silent Film Festival continues to thrill and excite lovers of cinema antiquity. Every year, for eight days in autumn, the origins of cinema unfold in various forms – in dialogue, discussions, screenings, analyses, book-browsing, DVD-collecting and good ole social inter-mingling. Nestled in northern Italy near Venice, Pordenone is a quaint and lovely little town sprinkled with cafes, shops and gelaterias – the latter being an institution of immense importance and a bastion of hope for those who have a penchant for the creamiest of confections. So many flavours, one must make the time to indulge in sampling of a leisurely kind. It is a town of many cultural events of which Le Giornate del Cinema Muto is just one.

What makes silent cinema so unique and special is that it requires nothing from modern or contemporary cinema for us to appreciate its significance as the lighthouse keeper. Silent cinema paved the way for what we perhaps take for granted today. In spite of the passage of time, silent cinema is an art form that remains fresh today, as innovative and transformative as it was 100 years ago.

Once again, the festival has delivered many surprises and discoveries. Like its summer counterpart, Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, the Giornate provides an opportunity to revisit and re-examine films once dismissed and albeit forgotten. The collegium dialogues and master classes provide further insight and depth to not just silent cinema and the programme, but lessons for young musicians, lectures on film preservation, archiving and restoration. An interesting and unique experience was the open dialogue with the festival director who talked about the programme and how it’s put together. He encouraged questions about why certain films are programmed, why some are scheduled very late at night and so on. He recommended that we discuss our feelings about watching actors in black-face and to talk about the racism in today’s context and how to examine our feelings about how this is portrayed in silent cinema. The films may be the central attraction, but without a doubt, the star of the festival is the music. These musicians are renowned and are invited each year to treat the audience to their talent. Films are not just accompanied with piano solos, but artists play a variety of instruments during a single screening for maximum musical serenade. One of the traditions of the festival is working with young students of local Pordenone schools who are still in training as they hone their skills. We were treated to their skills one evening as they played an entire orchestra of instruments to accompany a film, much to our enjoyment.

An unforgettable event was An Unprecedented Campaign (USSR 1931, Mikhail Kaufman); the music was performed by the Anton Baibakov ensemble. These talented Russian musicians were brought in especially for this screening and they lifted the lives of the peasants and farmers on screen to such operatic heights with their evocative music. The screening ended at midnight, but everyone was on their feet cheering and yells of “bravi” echoed throughout the Teatro Verdi when it was over.

I was fortunate to discover many gems at the Giornate this year, but these are very special indeed, in order of preference:

Artur Robison | Germany | 1923 | Programme: Italian Cinematheque

Here is a masterwork that demands to be rediscovered. Composed of striking images, painted in the blackest of black and the whitest of white, the visuals are enhanced even more in the strikingly gorgeous 35mm print. This is a film of the darkest imaginations, smoke and mirrors and a mischievous witch of a shadow-maker. It pushes the boundaries very early in cinema’s lifeline to show the possibilities of a narrative without narration. An aristocrat invites to his home four gentlemen. His wife becomes enamoured by one and flirtatious with others. Naturally, jealousy ensues. When the entertainment arrives in the form of a mysterious shadow player, the shows provide more than just shadows of fun and diversion. A superb entry in the Expressionism canon, it may be unjustly compared to the great masterpieces like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but Warning Shadows is its own nightmarish wonder. Told entirely silent, there are no inter-titles, no dialogues, not a word is uttered on screen. The dance of shadows on screen, the expressions of the actors, the mesmerizing camera, the attentive people out there in the dark of the theatre who interpret and absorb the nocturnal hallucinations of an expressive kind, are all ingredients in the making of this great film work.
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