The city itself dates back to the Bronze Age, the movies on display only a mere century. Yet it’s more than fitting that the film festival known as Il Cinema Ritrovato makes its home in the world’s oldest college town, where no sooner has the U. of Bologna recessed for the summer than the cobblestone streets and elaborate porticos come alive with another kind of student body — this one consisting of academics, archivists and programmers, a few thousand ordinary film lovers, and even the odd A-list Hollywood director (hello, Alexander Payne).
The festival’s name translates as “Cinema Rediscovered,” though “Cinema Resurrected” might be even more apropos, for its mission is not merely to unearth the treasures of cinema’s past, but to make them live anew. In its 27th edition (June 29-July 6), that meant more than 200 unique programs featuring more than 300 short, medium and feature-length films from across the globe and across the decades, from silent one-reelers to color and widescreen spectacles — some already established in the canon, many barely known; some screened in pristine new restorations, others hanging on for dear life in the last known surviving prints.
The screenings spread across four traditional cinemas and one open-air venue, the Piazza Maggiore, where this year festival attendees and locals alike crammed in nightly to see the likes of Chaplin, Tati, “Hiroshima mon amour” and “Badlands.” And on two magical evenings in the courtyard of the Cineteca, one could see short films from the very turn of the 20th century — treasures from a collection uncovered in 2006 in a Belgian warehouse — screened from projectors equipped with warm carbon arc lamps (the one-time industry standard, later replaced by cooler xenon bulbs). Out there, under the stars, rarely has moviegoing felt more like collective dreaming.
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Presented by the city’s permanent film archive, Cineteca di Bologna, Cinema Ritrovato is one of a small but growing number of festivals devoted primarily or exclusively to revival and retrospective programming, including the Pordenone and San Francisco silent film festivals, the 5-year-old Grand Lyon Film Festival in France (a side project of Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Fremaux, himself a Bologna regular) and the 4-year-old TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood. But if Bologna has secured a special place in the cinephile firmament, it’s through a combination of longevity, the exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) breadth of its program, and the incomparable stewardship of its director for the past 13 years, the Finnish critic, historian and filmmaker Peter von Bagh.
It isn’t just individual films and filmmakers that get “rediscovered” in Bologna. Entire retrospectives may be devoted to the work of a particular studio (like this year’s focus on the early Japanese sound film studio, P.C.L.), a format (European CinemaScope), or, in the case of the newly inaugurated sidebar “Emulsion Matters,” a particular type of film stock (first up: Czech movies of the ’60s printed on East German-made Orwo film).
Not that all the festival’s endeavors are quite so esoteric: This year’s edition also featured the nine silent Alfred Hitchcock films recently restored by the British Film Institute (which, despite the vogue for digital projection, were screened from newly struck 35mm prints), as well as the 12 two-reelers Charlie Chaplin made for the Mutual Film Co. between 1916 and 1917. Although among Chaplin’s best-known and widely seen shorts, the Mutual films had been circulating for decades in versions that were missing shots and had also been visually cropped to make room for musical soundtracks. The physical restoration work, made using original elements gathered from more than 30 international archives, was performed in Bologna itself at the state-of-the-art film lab L’Immagine Ritrovata (“The Rediscovered Image”), which has, since opening its doors in 1992, become to film preservation what Spain’s El Bulli restaurant is to molecular gastronomy.
If Chaplin and Hitchcock were Cinema Ritrovato’s headliners this year, its breakout stars were people like the silent-era Russian filmmaking team of Olga Preobrazenskaja and Ivan Pravov (subjects of a 12-film retrospective) and Sotoji Kimura, a director all but unknown in the West whose shattering family melodrama “Ino and Mon” (1935) was a major highlight of the P.C.L. series. Imagine that Japanese cinema, which converted to sound slowly and was still making silents into the 1940s, had only just begun to talk, and here was a movie rife with discussions of premarital sex, abortion and the untoward affections of a wayward young man for his own sister. Kimura’s film was remade in 1953 (as “Older Brother, Younger Sister”) by a better-known Japanese master, Mikio Naruse, who was himself represented at Bologna with two early talkies, “Wife Be Like a Rose” (1935) and “Five Men From the Circus” (1935), the latter of which was estimated by programmers Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordstrom to be screening for the first time outside Japan.
Bologna is at once an unusually civil festival — daily lunch and dinner breaks are conveniently built into the schedule — and an acutely agonizing one, for so embarrassing are the riches and so brief the time in which to consume them. (Most films are screened only once, resulting in many a cinephilic Sophie’s choice.) It’s also a tonic for the soul made weary by the steady bombast of another summer of blockbusters and the early stirrings of awards-season soothsaying. To wit, “The Lone Ranger” was playing at one local cinema, but the Independence Day Western on everyone’s lips was Allan Dwan’s “Silver Lode,” an ambitious 1954 programmer starring John Payne as a seemingly upstanding small-town citizen fingered by a vengeful U.S. Marshal (Dan Duryea) as the man who killed his brother. Gradually, rumor and innuendo get to the best of the local townsfolk, whose mob mentality calls to mind “High Noon,” though Dwan’s film is even more explicit in its allegory for the era’s communist witch hunts (Duryea’s character sports the name McCarty).
The subject of his own Cinema Ritrovato focus, co-programmed by Von Bagh and New York Times DVD critic Dave Kehr, the Canadian-American Dwan was a remarkable figure whose career stretched from the earliest days of silent one-reelers to bottom-of-the-barrel B-movies in the early 1960s. (He once told the film historian and collector Kevin Brownlow that he’d directed more than 1,400 films, and while the actual number may be closer to 400, who’s counting?) But Dwan was never better than in his silent features, which included multiple collaborations with two of the era’s leading stars, Douglas Fairbanks and Gloria Swanson. The latter is a particular revelation in Dwan’s “Manhandled” (1924), as a New York shopgirl navigating a gauntlet of lecherous, opportunistic men while trying to make a better life for herself and her inventor boyfriend (Tom Moore); the film, which survives only in 16mm copies shorn of two reels, would be worth seeing just for the scene of the petite Swanson fighting for space on a crowded New York subway, a sustained bit of physical comedy worthy of Chaplin or Keaton.
Another moviemaking renaissance man whose career began in silents, Italy’s own Vittorio De Sica was also feted with an eight-film retro encompassing his work as both actor and director — the tip of a more-than-150-film iceberg the festival might well consider revisiting in a future year (like its ongoing project to restore and revive the work of Roberto Rossellini). De Sica was no stranger to Hollywood, where he won four foreign-language film Oscars and was nominated for best supporting actor for his performance opposite Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones in the 1957 version of “A Farewell to Arms”; but the major rediscovery in Bologna was his magnificent 1954 anthology film “The Gold of Naples,” a sextet of both poignant and comic tales suffused with De Sica’s warm affection for humanity in all of its nobility, folly and vainglory. (De Sica himself stars in one segment as an inveterate gambler whose wife has cut him off financially, leaving him no choice but to play spades for imaginary stakes with a shrewd neighbor boy.) Initially distributed internationally in a version missing two episodes, “Gold” has happily been acquired for a U.S. re-release by Bruce Goldstein and Adrienne Halpern’s Rialto Pictures.
Of course, such reissues are rare in the VOD era, and so Bologna has made a point of championing the equally invaluable work of home media companies like Criterion, Flicker Alley and Carlotta (in France) that specialize in the distribution of library titles. An annual DVD jury (which this year included the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and Austrian Film Museum head Alexander Horwath) awards the best recent releases, judged not just on the quality of the films themselves, but also that of the transfers, packaging and extras.
This year’s jury even gave a special mention to one film from the Bologna lineup not currently available on DVD anywhere in the world, in the hopes of affecting just such a release. Produced in 1982 for French and Italian television, the six-part series “Bonjour Mr. Lewis” was an obvious labor of love for both its creator, the French film critic Robert Benayoun, and its subject, Jerry Lewis. Made at the zenith of Lewis’ popularity in France and the low ebb of his stardom Stateside (where Warner Bros. was about to send his last directorial effort, “Cracking Up,” straight to the video bin), Benayoun’s series mounts an impassioned case for the actor and filmmaker as one of the most important screen comics of the sound era, through generous film clips, concert footage, kinescopes of early Lewis television sketches, and extensive interviews with Lewis himself and a host of admirers, including Woody Allen, Peter Bogdanovich, Federico Fellini and Steven Spielberg. Little wonder that the Bologna catalog grouped “Bonjour Mr. Lewis” (which has never been broadcast on American television or released on video) together with the Chaplin shorts and Tati’s restored “Jour de fete” under this collective — and deserved — heading: Three Kings.