We have already established that Norma Talmadge is fond of a dual-role, but 1920’s Yes or No? (R. William Neill) pushes the boat out by having two Talmadge sisters on the cast list. of this New York drama Natalie T plays Emma, the maid of dissatisfied society lady Margaret (Norma) and sister of dutiful tenement housewife Minnie (also Norma). The clue is in the title here, and each woman will be asked to choose between temptation and courage, extramarital adventure and (often thankless) fidelity. So it’s a similar structure to that great Norma T melodrama Secrets (1924, Frank Borzage): a character study building to a question that tests that character. However, here we have two women, two questions, two answers – and two sets of consequences.
Choose carefully, ladies. The film is judging you. Literally, if those beartrap illustrations behind certain title cards are to be believed. In fact the title cards were a real highlight of the film, elegantly and often wittily illustrated. True, they were also a little sanctimonious, regressive… but it’s 1920 what can I say? The important point is that Norma is really splendid in this one. She does well with these two sympathetic characterisations, and while she is not charismatic in the way of a Swanson or a Pickford, she is very watchable. I am very much excited for the Normas to come. And thanks are due to José Maria Serralde Ruiz, for playing such an old-fashioned dramas if it were brand new, and building the tension beautifully.
Norma was a consummated professional, but there was room for amateur film in today’s programme, first with another chance to view the IAC “World Tour” films that screened at Hippfest earlier in the year. And then with an intriguing Polish mountain film from 1932. Biały ślad (The White Trail, Adam Krzeptowski), which the catalogue describes as “basically an amateur film”. That does not really rpreare you for how glorious it looks on the big screen. This is a drama set in the Tatra Mountains, with a love square in the foreground acted out by non-professional actors. But all the exciting stuff happens in long shot. Most of the cast were winter sports athletes and the films features some thrilling displays of skiing, ski jumping, sledding, rock climbing, and less pleasantly, hunting too. Naturally, this being a melodrama, the Search and Rescue service gets to strut its stuff too.
There is a very dramatic avalanche too. The snow and ice are the real stars of the film: crystalline flakes of snow several feet deep, water frozen into towering icicles. The film was shot silent but released with a rather ponderous recorded score. However, the images themselves seemed to be running at too slow a speed, and the soundtrack crops the frame a little oddly. Which all added to the eerie effect of this chilly curio.
Tonight’s main event was a true epic, and another cold-weather classic. Clocking in at 181 minutes, Borgslægtens Historie/Saga Borgarættarinnar (Gunnar Sommerfeldt, 1920) is a family saga, and this Danish production was the first film to be shot in Iceland. That is the reason it is remembered so fondly there, and shown regularly on TV apparently. I saw a section of it in a museum in Reykjavik once about 15 years – but tonight I settled in for the full effect. And was it worth the wait? Yes.
A long film, and a late night. But my patience was rewarded with a slow-burn, elemental tale of good and evil, sin and redemption, love and forgiveness. And I think we can unanimously agree on a special commendation for the ruggedly beautiful landscapes. Gorgeous stuff, and although I enjoyed this morning’s film, for example, I really appreciated that there was something more substantial in this story’s moral framework.
The story spans three generations… just about. Old Orlygur (Frederik Jacobsen) has two sons: Ormarr (Guðmundur Thorsteinsson) is noble and plays the violin rather idiosyncratically, and Ketill (Sommerfeldt – directors nearly always give themselves the best role) is villainous and hypocritical. Naturally Ketill becomes a vicar – which is when he really starts to become nefarious. And then, through some grim circumstances, Orlygur has a grandson, who in the second, shorter part of the story tries to atone for the sins of his fathers… but who is this mysterious figure on the heath, and why is he too trying to assuage his sins and those of the world through acts of altruism? There are female characters too, mostly long-suffering but all with a bit of interest, and quite frankly every reason to get in league together for a revenge narrative of their own – but this story rises above such vindictiveness.
The first two-hour section was by far more nourishing, with more action and intrigue. The final hour was really a kind of payoff for all the moral debts incurred in the first section – but the presence of said (not-so) mysterious stranger, Gaest the One-Eyed, really livened things up a little. That and the presence of a lamb wearing a garter.
This is such an important films for Iceland and it’s very good news that we now have this smart restoration by Kvikmyndasafn Íslands/The National Film Archive of Iceland, the Gunnar Gunnarsson Institute, and the Akureyri Culture Company. And new music too. The Orchestra San Marco were back in the pit, performing a romantic, elegant score by Icelandic composer Thordur Magnusson and conducted by Bjarni Frimann. There was a time, more than a decade ago now, when I wouldn’t be in Italy for a film festival at this time of year, I would be in Iceland for a music festival instead. So tonight, the best of both worlds!
Intertitle of the Day
“Light your fires Horace. Melt the glue off’n your feet. We gotta travel.” Natalie Talmadge wants to make it to the pictures on time, in Yes or No?
- Meanwhile, across town: Worth taking a look at the excellent blogposts by Paul Joyce, who is covering the festival at home, via the online version, due to circumstances beyond his control.
- Truncated theme of the day: first metaphorical bear traps in Yes or No? then real bear traps in The White Trail. I expected this to escalate somewhere in Iceland but no.
- Domitor, digested: Today’s General Assembly, in less than 45 seconds, courtesy Maggie Hennefeld.
- A bonus for book lovers: I am a big fan of the Bookfair presentations at the Giornate and have attended and enjoyed talks by Denise Khor, Julie K. Allen, James Curtis and Steve Massa so far this festival. You can find all these presentations online, on the Giornate YouTube Channel.
- 2022 trend of the day. In Yes or No? Minnie’s brother Tom refuses to do overtime. We call that a ‘quiet quitter’ these days.
- Read all my Pordenone posts in one place.
- You can read more about the festival, and all of the films, on the Giornate website.
- Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page.