One thing that distinguished this year's Il Cinema Ritrovato festival of rare, rediscovered or restored cinema from around the world was the air-conditioning. In previous years, the "cinephile's heaven" had seen people falling asleep at films they'd waited their whole lives to see, struck down by stifling midsummer heat. Now, even that beloved cinematic sweatbox the Jolly can cool its customers enough to mostly stave off somnolence, and if a hardboiled cinephage does pass out, it's more likely to be due to the unforgiving schedule of nine-to-midnight viewings.
The doughty traveler can concentrate on seeing everything in one or two strands—retrospectives on the cinema of 1898 and 1918, the work of directors John M. Stahl, Marcello Pagliero, Luciano Emmer and Ylmaz Guney, the studio Fox, the countries China and Russia in the early thirties, and so on... or they can do as I did, sampling almost randomly from across the goodies on offer. By the end, my prejudices were obvious, as I missed all the Chinese and Russian early sound films, and scooped up much of the American and European smorgasbord, but I could say with pride that the chronological span took me from Méliès in 1898 to Argento in 1977.
This scattershot approach has left me with much catching up to do. Luciano Emmer is generally bracketed in the "pink neo-realism" sub-genre, suggesting something lightweight and romantic about his approach to social issues, but the one film of his I saw was La ragazza in vetrina (The Girl in the Window, 1961), and it certainly didn't lack grit. The opening scenes in a coal mine are among the most impressive and oppressive images I've ever seen, seamlessly combining real subterranean footage with studio mock-ups, to create a deafening, claustrophobic, hazardous and filthy hell. Little wonder that the heroes, on their weekend off, spend all their money in Amsterdam, hiring prostitutes and trying to forget what they have to go back to. Star Marina Vlady was on hand to recount the adventures of filming, including the time the director and camera were thrown in a canal by irate pimps. The program also included short films made by Emmer on artistic subjects, and examples of his "caroselli," television shorts with commercials appended: Anita Ekberg advertising "La Dolce Birra" (The Sweet Beer) was an eye-opener.
Fellini's 1960 mega-hit was also referenced in Pietro Germi's Divorce Italian Style (1961) as a plot point, a reminder of how La dolce vita impacted Italian society at every level. This entry in the Marcello Mastroianni season (which crossed over with the Emmer at several points) saw the star in sleazy form, his mannerism of twitching one corner of his mouth to produce a miniature smacking sound apparently modeled on his director. The title turns out to refer to murder, and the devious aristocrat anti-hero plots to frame his spouse for adultery so he can snuff her and get off with a short sentence since he was, in Sicilian terms, protecting his family honor. The bad-taste story is surprisingly amusing and inoffensive, mainly because Mastroianni is so marvelously, ludicrously louche that no hint of sympathy threatens to attach to him.
Programs of shorts are a big attraction at Bologna, enabling the weary cinephage to recharge by consuming a variety of morsels (antipasto) rather than a main course (secondo). I saw a vast, black and bulbous tumor removed from a woman's abdomen in a graphic surgical demonstration from 1898 (Hysterectomie Abdominale: the jovial surgeon featured later sued his cameraman for selling the piece to sideshows) and a spoof on X-rays featuring dancing skeleton puppets (L'utilite des rayons x). I was introduced to Bonzo the Dog, Britain's answer to Felix the Cat, as surreal as his feline father-figure. And I saw MoMA's restoration of Lights Out in Europe, a 1940 documentary about the ever-spreading world war which featured the earliest cinematography by Douglas Slocombe, who died in 2016 aged 102, sadly before he could see this work again. He was present at the Nazi invasion of Danzig and captured indelible, horrific images at great personal danger, and the resulting film seems both a startling time capsule and, as the Museum's Dave Kehr pointed out, disturbingly contemporary.
Silent films with live music are a major attraction at Bologna: Neil Brand and Frank Bockius transformed Buster Keaton's Go West (1925), a movie whose relationship with Chaplinesque sentiment varies enormously depending on the score. This accompaniment beautifully balanced the film's genuine emotion with Keaton's sardonic mockery of standard tear-jerking. Never Keaton's funniest film, it suddenly emerged as his most emotional.
In a bit of real-life drama, 7th Heaven, Frank Borzage's 1927 melodrama, was postponed owing to thunderstorms: the open-air performance with Timothy Brock's live orchestral score was rescheduled to the spectacular Teatro Communale opera house, and made for an overwhelming occasion. By really entering into the film's unashamed melodrama, Brock transported us back in time to meet Borzage's romantic vision on its own ground. Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, and Fox Films' rendition of Paris sparkled in a new MoMA restoration, the crowning jewel of a season which shone a fresh light on many more obscure, even minor works. Often, these films seemed to turn a beady eye on the modern audience and address as directly.
"I blame the Republicans," says Depression-hit banker Grant Mitchell in One More Spring (1935), "But I shall vote for them again. With the Democrats you never know what will happen."
"Then I'll vote for the Democrats," says his pal. "I'm tired of knowing what will happen. And what won't happen."
In The Mad Game (1933), reformed gangster Spencer Tracy suggests banning sub-machine guns. "That's an idea that's being considered right now," he's told.
The 2016 screening of John M. Stahl's Only Yesterday (1933) seems to have inspired fresh interest in this subtle, elusive filmmaker, resulting in a season of his silents in Pordenone this autumn, and a broader career overview in Bologna. This took in entries from 1919's courtroom drama The Woman Under Oath to his masterpiece, Leave Her to Heaven (1945), shown in all its Technicolor delirium. Stahl's unfussy long takes (he'll hold a flat two-shot for minutes on end and make you like it) and his hard-to-pin-down social attitudes, which raise all manner of interesting issues without, usually, adopting an unambiguous position, remained in play across wildly diverse movies. The James M. Cain adaptation When Tomorrow Comes (1939), a romance which takes in industrial action, a hurricane, and mental illness, contrasted strongly with Immortal Sergeant (1943), a gripping wartime actioner with Henry Fonda in the British army (!), and the touching and hilarious Holy Matrimony (1943), which pairs Hollywood's favorite grouch Monty Woolley with British working-class musical star Gracie Fields, who was unable to work in her native land during wartime as her husband was Italian and would have been interned as an enemy alien.
Il Cinema Ritrovato is exhausting, wonderful, and at times heartbreaking, since to choose one great film to see generally means missing three others. And how much sunshine, great company, food and cinema can you take? Come to Bologna and find out.