Il Cinema Ritrovato XXVII: A [Three Months Late] Recap
October 12, 2013 § 1 Comment
From June 30 to July 5, I had the great privilege of attending Il Cinema Ritrovato, an annual film festival hosted by the Bologna Cineteca specializing in the unearthing and restoration of rare and important films from all over the world. The festival places emphases on early cinema and world cinema, both especially in need of such conservational efforts, but also finds time to honor established classics in the form of nightly outdoor screenings and to program inventive series that offer many options for cinephiles of all stripes. Case in point: a series of films made on the eve of World War Two that range from the auteurist extreme of Frank Borzage’s THREE COMRADES to Aleksandr Maceret’s ENGINEER KOCHIN’S ERROR, an almost totally unseen Soviet rarity.
For critics, scholars, and archivists, Il Cinema Ritrovato is an invaluable resource where opportunities for research, discourse, and networking are endless. But for me, a lowly student with no professional obligations, it was a weeklong vacation—a chance to fully stimulate my cinephilia by attending as many screenings as possible. What follows is a countdown of my ten favorite movies I saw at Il Cinema Ritrovato, discounting two magnificent repeat viewings, Nicholas Ray’s THE LUSTY MEN and Orson Welles’s CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT.
10. THE SWIMMER (Frank Perry, 1968) – Burt Lancaster’s hulking physicality is put to excellent use in this odd adaptation of John Cheever’s short story of the same name. Here he plays Ned Merrill, an apparently well-off suburbanite who finds himself in nothing but a pair of swim trunks at the home of some old friends. Before settling down for drinks, Merrill is seized by the far-flung romantic notion to trek home through the yards of his affluent neighbors, taking a dip in each one’s pool along the way. Merrill’s zest for life and spirited athleticism, put on display in gorgeous sunlit montages of his bounding through the woods, seems to mark him as a happy, willfully primitive outsider amid so many shallow party-goers and moneyed executives. And yet the closer he comes to the happy family he believes is waiting for him at home, the more disturbing and disillusioning his odyssey becomes. The subtext—the American dream of suburban happiness steadily inverted—is finally more legible than the text proper, which traffics in inconclusive backstory and conceptual mystery. A commercial failure at the time of its release, THE SWIMMER’s greatness is born almost entirely of its ineffable strangeness. There is nothing else quite like it in American cinema.
9. TENNESSEE’S PARTNER (Allan Dwan, 1955) – A low-budget Western shot in dark, lurid Technicolor, TENNESSEE’S PARTNER seems cut from the same cloth as such earlier pinnacles of garish Western delirium as RANCHO NOTORIOUS and JOHNNY GUITAR. The plot concerns the partnership between Tennessee (John Payne), a notorious local gambler living in a California mining town, and a newly arrived cowpoke (Ronald Reagan!), who goes by no other name. The practical reasons for their partnership—everyone in town seems to have it out for the them, from the marshal to the local prospectors aiming to strike it rich—pale against its personal function: Tennessee is a bitter, lonely man who comes to depend on Cowpoke for much needed companionship. With the arrival of Cowpoke’s wife-to-be, a young heartthrob whose ulterior reasons for marriage are known only to Tennessee, the partnership becomes threatened. Rhonda Fleming’s Duchess, in whose claustrophobic bordello most of the action unfolds, serves as the film’s only moral center, unshakeable even as the town descends into collective bloodlust. An immense departure from the warmth of Dwan’s 40s comedies, TENNESSEE’S PARTNER poses a profoundly bleak outlook: humanity is ruled by avarice and friendship destined to crumble under the weight of painful neuroses. Optimistic capstone aside, this is an immeasurably tragic film of seething emotional energy and a true classic of the genre.
8. TOO BAD SHE’S BAD (Alessandro Blasetti, 1954) – The funniest film I saw at Il Cinema Ritrovato was part of a retrospective honoring Vittorio De Sica, the performer as well as the filmmaker. I have long thought of De Sica as the least of the postwar triumvirate of Italian neorealists—more cloyingly pathetic and cheaply fatalistic than either Rossellini or Visconti—but as an actor he wields a redoubtable theatrical charm light-years away from the naturalism he sought as a filmmaker. In TOO BAD SHE’S BAD, De Sica plays Vittorio, the gregarious patriarch of a family of thieves whose daughter Lina (Sophia Loren at her finest) shows interest in an uptight cab driver named Paolo (a frustrated Marcello Mastroianni). But this is no ordinary courtship: the couple meets shortly before Lina aids in the attempted robbery of Paolo’s cab, and when he angrily seeks reparation, she, with ample assistance from her father, obstructs his efforts and propels him through an endless string of cruel humiliations. For all their casual deceit and crafty manipulation, they remain a warm and inviting family, all too eager to accept Paolo into their fold once he abandons the futile pursuit of justice and embraces the charms and pleasures of familial con artistry. An uproarious celebration of vice that plays like an out-of-bounds Hollywood screwball comedy, TOO BAD SHE’S BAD is an overlooked gem from Italian cinema’s richest period.
7. LA POINTE-COURTE (Agnès Varda, 1955) – Overshadowed by the debut features of her male contemporaries, this first film by Agnès Varda is arguably the starting point of the French New Wave. Introducing LA POINTE-COURTE, Varda described herself at the time of its making as someone with no critical relationship to cinema, indifferent to the rules and conventions of film production, and who simply had an idea that she wished to translate to film. The result: a naturalistic survey of a small fishing village that alternates freely between local goings on—marketplace gossip, community rituals—and a young couple (Silvia Monfort and Philippe Noiret) in somber dialogue about their jeopardized marriage. There is no formal intersection between the two, but the tonal oscillations between carefree documentary observation and intimate, inwardly focused drama prompt striking reconsiderations of the same setting. The village is at once a functioning community practicing a set way of life and an expansive, poeticized space tread by two wandering characters seemingly dislodged from that community. The film is relaxed but never detached, Varda’s camera an active presence in constant search of fresh vantage points.
6. L’AMORE (Roberto Rossellini, 1948) – If Italian neorealism was about relaxing the mechanics of causal narrative and bearing witness to everyday imperfection, then the first episode of L’AMORE is a radical neorealist experiment. Adapted from a play by Jean Cocteau in which a woman (Anna Magnani) desperately pleads with her lover over the phone, ‘The Human Voice’ finds a synthesis between ‘real time’ theatrical duration and the roaming eye of the movie camera. The result: neorealism erected upon a theatrical foundation, a modernist exercise that premeditates the Hollywood/neorealism dialectic of Rossellini’s 1950s collaborations with Ingrid Bergman. And yet the second episode is even better. Written by Rossellini from an idea by Federico Fellini, ‘The Miracle’ concerns a pious, simpleminded young woman named Naninna (also played by Magnani) who mistakes a wandering shepherd for St. Joseph. When she finds herself pregnant soon after, she is ridiculed and ousted from her community even as she insists that her pregnancy is a miracle from God. Condemned at the time for sacrilege, ‘The Miracle’ is one of Rossellini’s most compassionate and deeply Catholic films, a story of martyrdom that finds in its at first comically delusional protagonist a model of faith and moral resilience.
5. RENDEZVOUS WITH ANNIE (Allan Dwan, 1946) – One of the treasures of Il Cinema Ritrovato was a retrospective of the films of Hollywood filmmaker Allan Dwan, a name that doesn’t register a blip on most cinephiles’ auteurist radars but which has steadily accumulated a strong critical following. Of the five features and three shorts I managed to see—ranging from his early silents to his mature 50s period—this delightful comedy set during World War II and its immediate aftermath was my favorite. Eddie Albert plays the boyish Jeffrey, a soldier stationed in England who stows away to the States to make an unauthorized visit to his wife Annie (Fay Marlowe) on their anniversary and who takes every precaution to make sure that nobody finds out. However, when he returns from the war nine months later to find that she has given birth to a son, he must do everything he can to prove his desertion and guarantee his newborn’s inheritance. Jeffrey’s success comes to depend on two unlikely wartime friendships, the narrative finally converging on an eclectic spread of characters bound together by happy coincidence and mutual affection. Like the other Dwan comedies I managed to catch at the festival, ANNIE is an agile, unpredictable entertainment that offers less in the way of gags than graceful storytelling and warm, richly drawn characterization, and it embodies the best of what classical Hollywood has to offer.
4. THREE COMRADES (Frank Borzage, 1938) – For Frank Borzage, humanity is frail, time fleeting, and love eternal. His films are about the choice moments in which love at its most metaphysical comes to reside in a pair of preordained lovers who find in it a transformative moral power. Their time together does not last, and the fight against mortality never succeeds, but, to dust off an old cliché—itself transformed in Borzage’s delicate hands—the power of love conquers all. THREE COMRADES, like THE MORTAL STORM after it, applies this grand thematic to a specific historical moment: Germany in the aftermath of World War I. From the first scene in which Otto (Franchot Tone) is ordered to set fire to his prized fighter plane after the war has officially ended, THREE COMRADES emphasizes the impermanence of the physical world and the tragic inevitability that things must come to an end. Two years later, Otto and his two comrades, Gottfried (Robert Young) and Erich (Robert Taylor), have opened an auto-repair shop, a correlative for the country’s state of ideological disrepair. Gottfried finds value in fighting for the good of Germany and Erich, the film’s key protagonist, finds love in a woman named Pat (Margaret Sullavan). But frailty and fragility reign supreme: Gottfried dies while fighting for a Germany that never achieves stability and Pat becomes stricken with a severe lung hemorrhage. The love between Erich and Pat, however, receives Borzage’s highest blessing, proving ethereal and everlasting amidst so much earthly turmoil.
3. PURPLE NOON (René Clément, 1960) – This adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley is a cold, methodical thriller that charts the exploits of Tom Ripley (played by Alain Delon in his first leading role), an American sent to Italy to return playboy Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet) to his wealthy father in the States. Ripley, after having tasted luxury, plots to murder Greenleaf and completely subsume his identity. Delon rarely emotes, Ripley’s psychology under lock and key, and the blankness with which he carries out his plans almost seems to anticipate Jack Nicholson’s character in THE PASSENGER, Michelangelo Antonioni’s similarly empty and evocative study in identity theft. Awash in pale blues and glimmering oranges, the flesh-tones saturated by the light of the Mediterranean sun, PURPLE NOON is a feast for the eyes that knows all too well the raw delight of visual surface, even as it hints menacingly at the moral chasm that lies beneath.
2. WIFE! BE LIKE A ROSE! (Mikio Naruse, 1935) – Kimiko (Sachiko Chiba) lives alone in Tokyo with her poetess mother (Tomoko Ito), whose husband Shunsaku (Sadao Maruyama) has moved to the countryside and started a new family with a retired geisha named Oyuki (Yuriko Hanabusa). Kimiko, soon to be married, wishes to see her father and takes a secret odyssey to his mountain home. Harboring harsh prejudgments of her father’s mistress and acting under the naive assumption that she can convince him to return to the city, she arrives to find her expectations turned upside-down: Oyuki is a humble, generous mother of two who desperately depends on Shunsaku for love and support. And though he agrees to accompany Kimiko on a visit to Tokyo, he proves hopelessly incompatible with her mother, ultimately deciding to return to his family in the country. Mired in the sadness of broken familial bonds, WIFE! nonetheless suggests that Kimiko has matured enough to accept these divisions and will carry her enlarged awareness of other life experiences into her own marriage, an eventuality that tacitly shades every moment of the film. Naruse is adept at characterizing two disparate ways of living and finds expressive visual strategies for suggesting Kimiko’s youthful perspective as she comes to understand years’ worth of estrangement.
1. MODEL SHOP (Jacques Demy, 1969) – Gary Lockhart plays George Matthews, a young out-of-work resident of Los Angeles whose lifelong architectural ambitions have been sapped by the Vietnam-era climate. The draft hanging over his head, he occupies himself by aimlessly wandering around the city he loves. While staving off the inevitable he becomes captivated by a model shop worker played by Anouk Aimee, reprising her role as Lola from Demy’s eponymous debut. She offers her own story of loneliness, heartbreak, and sad inevitability, and in her George finally finds something to jolt him out of his melancholy. They are destined for one night together—she departs for France and he for the draft board—but it proves inspiring, no matter how bitter the aftermath. Like Demy’s French films of the 1960s, MODEL SHOP is a film about displacement, purposelessness, and love thwarted by life’s sad realities. Frequently awkward and plagued by imperfections, it remains a profoundly moving work that grows in emotional power as Demy moves steadily from meandering L.A. travelogue to a focused, close-quarters study of mutual loneliness. MODEL SHOP captures the paralytic Vietnam state of mind like no other American film I know, and it touched me more deeply than any other film at the festival. – Stuart