Three little words of Italian you need to learn if you attend Il Cinema Ritrovato: Cento Anni Fa. This must-see strand of the festival, curated by Bologna’s silent cinema supremos Mariann Lewinsky and Karl Wratschko, dials back the programming clock by a century. The name means simply: a hundred years ago.
So it was that this week, in between blasts of restorative Italian sunshine and shots of iced coffee, I spent a week in the 1922 cinematic universe: a world of gorgeous location photography, penetrating psychodrama, impeccable slapstick and to generalise, a healthy number of female-led films (including a handful of nasty women). It was clearly a good year for the movies, so much so that even though I skipped some of the Cento Anni Fa screenings as they were already familiar to me (or outside my days at the festival), that left plenty of room to explore some less well-trod pathways through the year, one massive restoration project and at least one cult classic that I had been saving up for a big-screen viewing. Here are some of those highlights.
That cult classic was Alla Nazimova’s scintillating take on Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley and the Old Testament: Salomé (George Bryant, 1922). Nazimova, the film’s writer and co-producer, stars as the slinky, pearl-coiffed title character, driven to a fury of desire and indignation by the prophet Jokaanan (Nigel de Brulier) – so much so that she will dance for the court in order to see his head on a silver charger. This is a flagrantly outlandish art film – taking inspiration from Beardsley, but with its captivating figures beautifully offset by the deep blacks of its studio setting. There’s little to the plot. The heft of the film lies in its absurd/absurdly attractive designs (costumes by Natacha Rambova) and the transgressive strength of the desire expressed, not just by Salomé but all members of Herod’s court, which positively crackles with meaningful glances. Kenneth Anger’s assertion that the entire cast and crew were queer may not stand up to rigorous fact-checking, but it is surely easy to believe. Valetina Magaletti’s percussive accompaniment was as angular and charismatic as Nazimova herself twisting behind her seven seductive veils.
That major restoration was not part of this strand alone, but also the gift that is the Restored and Rediscovered slate. By the happiest of Hollywood happenstance, San Francisco Silent Film Festival and Moma’s reconstruction, shine and polish of Erich Von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives finally took to the big screen at the Piazza Maggiore in its centenary year. For me Von Stroheim’s epic dramas rarely enchant for the full extent of their running order – and this riviera-set intrigue left me a little chilly at times. No matter, Stroheim was at his most charismatic (and dashing in his crisp white uniform) as a conniving seducer preying on the vulnerabilities of vain rich women and the (Californian) scenery sparkled in this new version. And of course, just when you mistakenly assume you know this tune all too well, the final act blazes with colour, revenge and romantic madness. We cheered! EVS always has a trick up his sleeve. So much careful work went into this restoration and it shows. Foolish Wives looked sublime, and Timothy Brock’s score, played by Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna, rose to the challenge without ever pulling focus from the on-screen excesses.
For me, at least, the 1922 strands contained some very pleasant surprises: chief among them my favourite silent discovery of the festival, Louis Delluc’s ethereal morality play La Femme de nulle part (The Woman From Nowhere, 1922). Ève Francis is the surprise guest at, and apparently the former owner of, a rural mansion. This elegant manor is home to an anxious husband, a dissatisfied wife and a tiny daughter, poignantly unaware that her once-happy home is developing dangerous emotional faultlines. The unknown woman is haunted by the memories of her own marriage as she in turn becomes a melancholy spectre in her former home. She has an urgent message for the young wife, a warning inspired by her own crushing sense of regret, fatally undermined by her own lingering romantic impulse. Exquisitely staged, this delicate drama is contemplative, empathetic and emotionally revelatory. Eduardo Raon’s harp accompaniment served the film’s eerie atmosphere superbly well – melodic and slightly sinister, evoking the ache of painful memories.
I was less enthusiastic about by another new-to-me film: Anna-Liisa (Teuvo Puro), an elegant adaptation of a 19th-century Finnish play (by Minna Canth) about a young woman who is engaged to be married but tortured by a terrible secret: a former lover, and something else, much more damning. Some beautiful scenery and neatly staged scenes of confrontation and repentance shone, as did Stephen Horne’s beautiful accompaniment. On the other hand, the structuring device, with the countdown to the wedding marked by the progress of the wedding dress Anna-Liisa weaves and stitches, was a little underused. Horribly, recent news from America reverberated uncomfortably around the hall at this screening. The issues raised in the film’s melodramatic plot are tackled only by condemnation and self-abnegation – the heroine’s embrace of punishment for ill-defined crimes felt far from satisfactory. It’s true, 1922 and 2022 are different countries after all. Forty years’ difference is easier to span, and a 1982 film I also caught at the festival piqued my interest. Like Anna-Liisa, Avskedet (Tuija-Maija Niskanen) is the story of a young woman whose behaviour defies social mores and inflames patriarchal authority, and indeed that film’s director has made her own version of Anna-Liisa – a film I now urgently want to see.
In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that despite its faults Anna-Liisa was not my least favourite film of the strand. I bestow that honour on Alfred Machin’s comedy Serpentin fait de la peinture– a fairly seedy comedy about an art teacher who wants to paint young women in the nude or nearly nude, much to his wife’s chagrin. I felt sorry for the cow who was needlessly drawn into this lark, which bordered on the gratuitous. Though you can surely argue the film’s themes were timeless.
On to finer things. The strand featured two immaculately crafted fairytale films from Lotte Reiniger: Aschenputtel (Cinderella) and Dornröschen (Sleeping Beauty). Utter gems both, and the second introduced one of my most anticipated screenings, which comprised the Reiniger film, a short British study of the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova (Dancing Grace – short, but sweetly enhanced by trick photography) and a feature melodrama. The main event was Le Quinzième prelude de Chopin (Viktor Turzanskij) – a drama of adultery, violence and revenge, all pivoting around the famous piece played on the piano by a couple of characters. This wooed me immediately, setting up the happy home about to be wrecked with a domestic screening of a film by Chaplin (the film within a film is a fake, using an impersonator), whom the toddler of the house then imitates repeatedly – and adorably. However, the plotting ties far too many, slightly ludicrous knots and it becomes a bit of a chore by the time of the dénouement and what we can call a literal case of sledgehammer symbolism, as the wall between the two lovers’ gardens is demolished in a jumpcut. However, I could have lingered over their romantic and legal travails for much longer as this and the ballet film were both accompanied by John Sweeney, the perfect musician for the job – who wove the Chopin in and out of his score beautifully. Apparently the first screenings didn’t use the Chopin at all, but a waltz instead. I feel we had the better option in Bologna.
You haven’t experienced silent film at Il Cinema Ritrovato to the fullest unless you’ve been to a carbon lamp projection in the Piazzetta Pasolini at least once. The crackle, the fizz, the whirr, the unparalleled beauty of the light, Ah, I am in cinephile raptures just thinking about it. My precious Piazzetta moment came with an Italian rural melodrama, in many ways akin to Anna-Liisa, but with a fluidity of direction and sympathy that was far more appealing: Cainà Overro l’Isola e il Continente (Cainà: the Island and the Continent, Gennaro Righelli) makes the most of its rugged Sardinian locations and the sparkling sea to tell the tale of rebellious young woman Cainà, who outrages her family with her free-spirited ways and so runs away to sea. A gorgeous hour-long feature, with a striking Maria Jacobini giving the title character passion and a pleasing degree of moral strength. I was less convinced by the musical accompaniment for this, but only because the avant-garde staccato sounds produced by the musicians clashed awkwardly with the rattle of the projector. Perhaps I was just sitting in the wrong place, sonically. In another venue I can see it being a triumph.
A wonderful screening, not least because Cainà was preceded by another 1922 gem, Changing Hues, a British advert for Twink fabric dye that the catalogue boasted was “the most beautiful film of the festival” (strong words for an event with a whole section devoted to Sophia Loren and I suspect the Paris fashion short recently restored by Eye Filmmuseum just about nudges the win anyway, but this is a strong contender). This film has charm, verve, humour and liberally applied pink pigment – it’s impossible to resist. And why would you try?
Changing Hues was not the strangest film to feature in the strand, oh no. That prize goes, hands down, to Camille Legrand’s sprightly, supernatural Béhula. Legrand was a Pathé camera operator based in the Far East, and Béhula is a feature film he made about Manasa, a minxy snake goddess, and the extreme lengths she goes to be worshipped as fervently as she sees fit. Two things to note from this unforgettable screening. First, Anglo-Indian actress Patience Cooper as the title character, a mortal with remarkable presence of mind in the face of divine hostility and deadly snake venom both (a certain direttore of another festival commented that he knew her haughty demeanour would appeal to me and what can I say? He’s rarely wrong). Second, the special effects, which were defiantly old-school. Yes, sometimes you can actually see the hand that is manipulating the serpent on the attack, which does dent your suspension of disbelief. But aesthetically I was thrilled by the effects used for lightning bolts and magic beams shooting from a god’s eyes: scratched straight on to the film, jagged and raw and twitching with energy. Strictly we should say this was amateurish, but it translates to the screen as enthusiasm made visible. Other simple effects such as stop-motion vanishing acts were more successful, which combined well with the elaborate costumes and décor to create a world of unexpected and unearthly activity. The excellent, eclectic recorded score employed a variety of instruments including the Indian santoor. What more could you desire from a voyage into the past? To 1922 and further back through the ages…
Among the treasures I skipped: Carl Th Dreyer’s Love One Another, Nanook of the North, Robin Hood starring Douglas Fairbanks, Nosferatu, Chaplin’s Pay Day and a couple of Buster Keatons… It’s as clear as the blue skies over the Piazza that 1922 is a beautiful place to visit.
Before I leave you, one more silent film for luck. An example of late French silent cinema, so late that it was largely overlooked on first release during the rush towards sound, screened in a new restoration on the big screen Piazza Maggiore in the middle of the week. Actor Charles Vanel directed just one film and it was the impressionist marital nightmare Dans la Nuit (1929), in which a young bride’s dreams of conjugal bliss are shattered when her husband is wounded in a mining accident and forced to wear a sinister metal mask to cover his disfiguring facial burns. Gorgeously animated intertitles, dripping liquid transitions and deep shadows thrown at drunken angles give this kinetic film a feverish allure. It’s packed with fast action and deep emotion – from the carnival wedding party to the explosive catastrophe and its gruesome consequences. The film screened in Bologna with a suitably sharp and up-tempo accompaniment from two members of the Finnish group Cleaning Women. I really hope it comes to the UK.
And a talkie. Yes. Alice Rohrwacher’s Le Pupille (2022) had debuted at Cannes where no doubt the critics delighted in its festive charms, but it arguably found his natural home in Bologna’s celebration of cinema’s long history and the grandeur of Piazza Maggiore. It was filmed in the city too. A Christmas film, produced by Disney no less, that revels in the energetic rebellions of convent schoolgirls, delights in having no moral and is as sweet as stolen pudding. The eyes have it in the bewitching final sequence. Look out for this one on Disney+ – this sugary dessert is studded with candied truthbombs.