Joan Bennett in Jean Renoir’s The Woman on the Beach, Jack’s favorite film of this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival
In this recap of Italy’s recent Il Cinema Ritrovato film festival, Jack Miller showcases the unique offerings and exclusive screenings he was able to experience earlier this summer.
This past June, cinephiles from all over the world once again descended on Bologna, Italy, for an extended week of paradise at Il Cinema Ritrovato, the glorious retrospective film festival organized by Cineteca di Bologna. As with past editions of the festival, the program of this year’s Ritrovato was enormously impressive, uniting both rare and largely unseen treasures from the past with the triumphant return of great classics. The Cineteca uses the program to showcase many of its new digital restorations, though they also remind us of the importance of analog film projection with many 35mm screenings and, this year, an entire series dedicated to celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 16mm format. I had previously attended the festival in 2021, the year that the festival hosted retrospectives dedicated to George Stevens, Indian Parallel Cinema, and much more. This year’s festival was somehow bigger and better, as well as a more social and personally satisfying experience for myself. Because I saw around 40 films over the course of the ten days I was in Bologna, I’ve decided to restrict my selections to a highlight reel of favorites, which will hopefully provide a nice overview of the festival’s many strands and unique happenings.
The Woman on the Beach
The Woman on the Beach (Jean Renoir, 1947): In many respects my favorite film of this year’s festival was Jean Renoir’s mysterious and melancholy final American film, The Woman on the Beach (1947), which screened in the perennial Recovered and Restored series. This eerie story about shifting sexual desires between a blind painter (Charles Bickford), his lonely wife (Joan Bennett), and a Navy patrol officer (Robert Ryan) unfolds in powerful spaces of misty desperation like a series of haunted engravings. But a large part of what made this screening so special to me was the unveiling of the Film Foundation and The Library of Congress’s newly restored 35mm print, which made the film’s strange textures truly come alive — the film truly seemed to be breathing along with its audience. The film has a somewhat maligned reputation due to the censorship cuts that were inflicted upon it prior to its release, but for me, the oblique narrative ellipses only add to the work’s oneiric power. None other than Jacques Rivette once wrote that The Woman on the Beach represents “the most conclusive evidence of the talent, or the genius, of its director,” a radical sentiment that may shock some of Renoir’s disciples even today. I heartily concur.
Greta Garbo in Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933)
Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933): One of the highlights of this year’s Ritrovato for many attendees, myself included, was the retrospective dedicated to Armenian-born Hollywood auteur Rouben Mamoulian, whose dazzlingly energetic work brought motion to early American sound cinema, and who continued to have a fruitful career for many decades after. I’ve written elsewhere in the pages of this blog about Mamoulian’s impressive adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), and that great film also screened in this year’s selection alongside gems like Applause (1929), Love Me Tonight (1932), and The Mark of Zorro (1940). But for me the highlight of the Mamoulian strand remains the masterpiece Queen Christina (1933), perhaps the apotheosis of Great Garbo. This exquisite and erotic work about romantic sacrifice is elevated not only by Garbo’s dynamic performance as the famous queen of Sweden who falls for a Spanish noble, but by the truly cinematic materials and textures which Mamoulian conjures around her.
Giacomo Casanova: Childhood and Adolescence (Luigi Comencini, 1969)
Giacomo Casanova: Childhood and Adolescence (Luigi Comencini, 1969): One of the great things about Il Cinema Ritrovato is the opportunity it brings to see works that are rarely if ever screened nowadays. The festival’s series dedicated to the Italian woman screenwriter Suso Cecco d’Amico, who wrote films for great Italian auteurs like Visconti and Rossellini, represented one such opportunity. Giacomo Casanova delighted me mainly for being so different from other festival fare: this biographical film about the early years of Casanova begins as a resonant and poetic depiction of childhood, inviting comparison to such works about early youth as Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet (1955) and Alexander Mackendrick’s A High Wind in Jamaica (1965). But as Casanova grows up into the promiscuous young adult that he’s best known as today, the film transforms into a hilarious sex comedy that exposes and satirizes the hypocrisy of eighteenth-century Italian society. A gem.
Anna Magnani (foregrounded) in Bellissima (Luchino Visconti, 1951)
Bellissima (Luchino Visconti, 1951): The actress being honored at this year’s fest was that grand dame of Italian cinema, Anna Magnani. In Nan Goldin’s memorable introduction to Visconti’s Bellissima (1951), which screened outside under the stars in the Piazza Maggiore city square, Goldin described Magnani as “not pretty, but beautiful… a fierce, wild beauty.” Despite Bellissima’s status as a classic, it feels somewhat anomalous within Visconti’s oeuvre of rich historical pageants; this is a contemporary-set satire about a mother trying to get her daughter casted in a contest held by the bigwigs of the Italian film industry and remains a great send-up of showbiz and the shortcomings of the film industry. But the intensity that Magnani brings to her performance also renders the film into a moving depiction of maternal sacrifice. The other special Piazza screenings I attended this year included a brand-new Technicolor 35mm print screening of Powell & Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947), as well as new digital restorations of Francois Truffaut’s The Woman Next Door (1981) and David Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999).
Poster for a theatrical screening of Joe Dante’s The Movie Orgy (1968)
The Movie Orgy (Joe Dante, 1968): By far the wackiest screening I attended in Bologna was Joe Dante’s 280-minute The Movie Orgy, an epic and perverse compilation of American film and television clips and advertisements from the 1950s and ‘60s, which was presented with the director of Gremlins (1984) and Matinee (1993) himself in attendance. Dante and his friends composed this “Frankenstein’s monster” of a film by continually adding on more material that they found funny over a number of years, screening it clandestinely until it acquired a kind of legendary reputation. The sheer weirdness of the selections conjures up a kind of grotesque unconsciousness of American consumer culture. The Movie Orgy only screens theatrically when Dante himself is in attendance, and due to its unique nature will never be released on home video, so if you ever have the chance to catch a one-off screening of it, I’d advise taking it.
Black Narcissus (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1947), which screened in a brand-new Technicolor 35mm print in Piazza Maggiore this year
This selection of highlights only represents the tip of the iceberg of the Ritrovato 2023 program. For the curious, the full program (divided up between the festival’s various sections) can be viewed on the Il Cinema Ritrovato website. I feel extremely grateful to have met many wonderful, far-flung people at this year’s event and to have engaged in so many great conversations about cinema. It was a potent reminder of the social spirit which underscores moviegoing culture, too often forgotten in our current age of streaming and home viewing. I hope to be able to return to Bologna soon to see what riches they choose to unveil in future editions.