For the last 35 years, a wonderful event has happened in Bologna: Il Cinema Ritrovato, meaning “the cinema rediscovered,” a unique film festival that does not showcase new films competing for prizes or distribution, but rather one that’s dedicated to preserving and sharing the classic and lost treasures of film history. Film culture remains alive and well in Bologna year-round thanks to the programming efforts of the Cineteca di Bologna, the local cinematheque which organizes the festival, and L’Immagine Ritrovata, a film laboratory that carries out many wonderful restorations of vintage films each year. Together and with the help of many knowledgeable film scholars and curators, these great libraries put together an extraordinary program of films in the city each year. I was able to attend the festival this year, my first time in Bologna, and I was like in a kid in a candy shop the whole time: seeing between four and five movies each day, hopscotching between different eras and countries in cinema’s history. It was a remarkable experience.
The festival’s eclectic program is comprised of several different series which run parallel to one another throughout the event; one important strand that happens each year is dedicated to an American master. This year, the classical giant being honored was George Stevens, the versatile director who helmed such classics as Swing Time (1936) and A Place in the Sun (1951), but who seems curiously to be a little underdiscussed these days. I attended four of the screenings in the Stevens retro: the child-adoption melodrama Penny Serenade (1941, 35mm); the Washington, D.C.-set romantic comedy The More the Merrier (1943); the restrained and beautiful family piece I Remember Mama (1948, 35mm); and the mythic, “revisionist” western Shane (1953).
I Remember Mama, in particular, was a very moving experience for me. A sentimental tearjerker in the grand ‘40s tradition, the film is an immigrant saga about a Norwegian family living in San Francisco in the early part of the twentieth century. This movie was actually my paternal grandmother’s favorite film of all time, and her own mother was a Norwegian immigrant. Watching a beautiful 35mm print of it in a dark theater, I felt like I was communing with my grandma in a certain way. Stevens shoots the film beautifully with extensive use of mirrors and low ceilings; the home, and its central staircase, become spaces of emotional memory. As in Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), the flow of images shows us a vision of the past that’s more remembered than experienced directly.
Perhaps the most exciting and adventurous program at this year’s festival was one dedicated to Indian Parallel Cinema, a film movement that emerged in the late ‘60s in direct opposition to Bollywood aesthetics. I went to five screenings in this series, the most exciting of which was the ultra-rare opportunity to see a 35mm print of Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti (1969), a radical experiment in film form which was one of the movement’s foundational texts. Kaul, who was only 25 when he shot the film, might be reasonably compared with Andy Warhol in his belief that cinema is primarily a temporal medium rather than a visual one; he’s attempting nothing less here than the formation of a new mode of communication with the viewer. On the other hand, the film recalls Roberto Rossellini’s modernist collaborations with Ingrid Bergman in its use of form to try to articulate a woman’s interior life. This is simply one of the great films, and I hope more people will have a chance to see it in the coming years.
Another of the festival’s reoccurring strands is the “One Hundred Years Ago” program, which this year honored films from 1921. A major discovery for me here was Paul Leni’s splendid German expressionist classic Die Hintertreppe (Backstairs), a demented tragedy which outdoes The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) in its creepy artifice, and which seems to anticipate David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) by a good 55 years. I also saw Colin Campbell’s The Swamp, an American silent melodrama starring the Japanese star Sessue Hayakawa, which no one has really seen in decades. The only surviving print of this film wound up at Gosfilmofond, the Russian film archive, sometime in the 1950s. Having a chance to see rarities like this which have just been completely lost to time represents one of the real thrills of attending the festival in Bologna. It’s a reminder of how little we still know about the history of cinema.
Il Cinema Ritrovato paid tribute to the beautiful German-French actress Romy Schneider this year with a retrospective of films she appeared in throughout her career, and I saw three of these: Orson Welles’s nightmarish Kafka adaptation The Trial (1962); Claude Sautet’s subtle drama of interiority Cesar and Rosalie (1972); and the film which may be the very best movie I saw in Bologna, Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal (1963). The Cardinal comes from the point in Preminger’s career when he was helming a number of star-studded blockbusters which were adapted from best-selling novels: Exodus (1960), Advise and Consent (1962), In Harm’s Way (1965). These projects were done in the widescreen Panavision process, and despite their commercial trappings, they find Preminger at his most artistically beguiling.
This biographical epic about an American priest’s rise to the status of a bishop and, finally, to that of a cardinal, is itself an index of social horrors in the first half of the twentieth century: antisemitism, sexism, segregation, and the rise of fascism are all dealt with. But Preminger’s true subject is always the mysteries of people and their personalities, and he finds haunting ways of examining this subject amid a staggering social and visual canvas. The critic Chris Fujiwara writes that these Preminger films “examine the possibilities for freedom, conscience, and poetry within the vast spaces of history, mega-institutions, and Panavision.”
Among the highlights of the festival are the outdoor screenings put on at night in the Piazza Maggiore, the historic city center of Bologna. It was here that I got to see brand-new restorations of Jean Renoir’s The Lower Depths (1936), Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), and Mauritz Stiller’s Erotikon (1920). In the case of the immortal Vampyr, the original score was performed live, and during the film’s famous burial sequence – shot from the perspective of a corpse inside of a coffin – the eerie church bells which one can faintly hear on the film’s soundtrack rang triumphantly throughout the Piazza, having actually been rung in the nearby church. Magic moments like this abound in Bologna during Il Cinema Ritrovato, a festival that makes the past feel more alive and relevant to us than ever.
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He graduated from Indiana University with a BA in English, and currently resides in Chicago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.