(Dialogue in French, English and various other languages)
Though not a BFI production and not a documentary, Marco Ferreri’s “Nitrate Base” could be called the ultimate Century of Cinema film. Examining the effect movies have had on 100 years of filmgoers, it is an exhilarating celebration of the movie theaters and the audiences that used to be. Not only film buffs will get off on this fast-paced, thoroughly enjoyable race through the history of the movies. TV is a likely market, but even theatrical arthouse release could be a possibility in many territories.
Title refers to cellulose nitrate base, which was the most common material used to make 35mm films up until 1950, when safety stock came into use. Never a man to mince words, veteran director Ferreri (“Dillinger Is Dead,” “La Grande Bouffe”) takes the view that cinema is a thing that exists no more, because the movies have become elitist and no longer represent the people who go to watch them. This is a strong assertion in an age of huge Hollywood blockbusters, yet pic presents a compelling case for the death of cinema as a popular art.
For Ferreri, the history of the 20th century is impossible to imagine without movie theaters. Using well-chosen historical footage and film clips, he shows the awe-inspiring architecture of the movie palaces of yesteryear, the Eldorados and Edens where the poor came to get out of the cold and feel rich for a few hours. Anarchists launched their pamph-
lets in the dark, lovers rendezvoused, kids cut school to slip inside, immigrants to America learned English, and people slept, ate and carried on their daily lives at the movies.
As film theaters multiplied at an amazing rate (by the mid-1920s there were already 50,000 around the world), the stars became models of life for thousands of people. Rows of ardent males gawked at the beauty of Greta Garbo. Women in black flocked to theaters to pay tribute to the dead Rudolph Valentino. And inside the moviehouses love affairs were carried on, virginity lost and babies conceived, at a time when you could be arrested for kissing on the street.
Along with the decline of the monumental movie theaters, where people went to pass the day, came the decline and, says Ferreri, death of cinema. When pic reaches the present day, a group of dispirited young film fans, tired of sitting around their empty film club (despite offering free plates of spaghetti to ticket-holders), decide to project the haunting face of Ingrid Bergman on the wall outside. But its only effect is to annoy people eating in an outdoor restaurant.
Though the film is packed with repertory material, it is used to structure the film around its main themes. Often it is hard to tell at first whether a sequence comes from an old film, or (more likely) has been restaged by Ferreri with his huge cast of actors, who are recycled in various roles. Pic was shot in Hungary, where extras (realistically costumed through the decades by Claire Fraisse) are cheap and plentiful, and where magnificent movie theaters from the ’30s still gleam in all their splendor.
Film editor Dominique B. Martin keeps “Nitrate Base” moving at an entertaining pace while cutting together a wide variety of material with often striking results. On another level, it is eerie to watch a film about people watching films, and Ferreri and his co-writers, Gianni Romoli and David Maria Putorti, succeed in putting the viewer into a personal, almost intimate, relationship with the images. Yorgos Arvanitis takes his camera through a dozen styles and epochs with trompe l’oeil results, making it possible to confuse the new material with historical footage.
An eclectic choice of music ranges from Bach to Carlos Gardel and Maurice Jarre (“Lara’s Theme” from “Dr. Zhivago.”) Pierre Excoffier’s and Bernard Leroux’s direct sound recording captures a cosmopolitan babel of languages, in which French and English predominate.