Il Cinema Ritrovato – a couchsurfing experience

Neil Watson visits the world’s foremost festival for restored films, held annually in Bologna, Italy

Italians certainly know how to enjoy life, and this is particularly evident in the medieval city of Bologna, which is famous for its unmatched cuisine. The country is, of course, always blessed with excellent weather for several months of the year and this lends itself to endless outdoor festivals during the summer.

The Il Cinema Ritrovato festival first took place 21 years ago, the objective being to showcase restored films from archives around the world. The festival, held from 30 June–7 July revolves around the Cineteca del Comune di Bologna, which is world-famous for its collection of 18,000 films and its restoration work. Screenings take place in the two cinemas inside the Cineteca, named after the Lumière Brothers, who developed motion pictures in 1895. Not far away is the Cinema Arlecchino, a late 1950s cinema that retains its original curved screen for Cinemascope formats. Screenings take place simultaneously in these cinemas for nearly 12 hours a day for a full week. Then, in the evening, after dark, the entire city becomes a cinema town, with free screenings on a giant screen in the Piazza Maggiore, in front of the Basilica. There is seating for 5,000 people, but it is still advisable to arrive around 40 minutes early to be sure of getting a seat from the outset. Some evening screenings of silent films take place in the Teatro Communale, a gilt-encrusted opera house constructed in 1763, where there is obviously room for a full symphony orchestra.

I am a small-scale collector of 16mm films and equipment and first heard of the festival six years ago from a friend. However, the cost of attendance seemed prohibitive until I discovered the website just over a year ago. I regularly travel in Europe for my work as a journalist, like to stay over the weekend and always enjoy meeting new people. The concept of the site is that people in your desired city will let you sleep on their sofas, airbeds or piles of cushions on the floor! Since then I have had some really great experiences couchsurfing and hosting people at home in East London. Fortunately, Bologna is home to the oldest university in Europe, if not the world, and there are plenty of computer-savvy students who are happy to be hosts, the main objective being to practice the English language with a native speaker.

I attended the festival for the first time last year, when I surfed two different couches in the heart of Bologna at the time of the football World Cup, which was eventually won by Italy. That was a brilliant experience, although some of my hosts smoked a considerable amount and I nearly levitated above my couch at one point! This year I actually surfed four different couches, which was most enjoyable and certainly added a different dimension to the experience. In fact, after flying in, I initially stayed awake continuously for 26hrs, as I attended two student parties! One couch was quite cosy, as I shared the bedroom with my (male) host and another involved sleeping with two large furry cats. However, the final couch, out in the countryside with a married couple called Matteo and Julie, together with their dogs and cats, had to be the best. They were so kind to me, and Matteo even drove into Bologna with me to see some of the evening screenings as there was no way I could have got back by train.

Now to the films. I counted the films I saw the other day, and in fact I saw 136 different titles during the course of the week! Some, of course, were very short indeed – particularly those that formed part of a sub-festival of films that were exactly 100 years old. Last year I concentrated solely on silent cinema, but this time I endeavoured to mix things up a little, looking at silents in the morning and sound films in the afternoon. Needless to say, all silent films were accompanied by live piano (other than those shown with orchestra).

I have therefore decided to just focus on ten films that particularly caught my attention, listing them in alphabetical order and hopefully representing all strands of the festival.

L’Armée des Ombres (Jean-Pierre Melville; Fr/It; 1969)
Having been a fan of Melville’s gangster films for many years, I had wanted to see this film on the French Resistance for some time. The film was Melville’s labour of love, concentrating on the human elements of working in the Resistance and featured an amazing performance by Lino Ventura. I don’t think I will ever forget the sequence where Ventura’s character is forced to garrotte a young Resistance member because he has turned informer; his first ever parachute jump over an occupied France after a brief sojourn in London to seek financial assistance or the way in which the Nazis play with their enemies before murdering them. The conclusion, featuring Simone Signoret, was incredibly moving.

Bhowani Junction (George Cukor; USA/UK; 1956)
This was a beautiful scope print from the Swiss archives. Shot in Pakistan, yet set in India, the film starred Ava Gardner as an Anglo-Indian and posed some very interesting questions about cultural identity at the time of Partition, particularly regarding her relationships with a Sikh suitor and a British colonel, played by Stewart Granger. Despite having begun his career in 1929, George Cukor demonstrated a fine understanding of how to use scope to its maximum advantage in the crowd scenes and particularly during a train explosion by Indian nationalists.

The Cabin in the Cotton (Michael Curtiz; USA; 1932)
Hungarian émigré Michael Curtiz is probably best known for ‘Casablanca’, but he made quite a number of B-movies throughout the 20s and 30s. This film is notable for its evocation of the Deep South cotton fields and features the breakthrough performance by Bette Davis as a spoiled temptress who uses the immortal line “I’d like to have kissed ya, but I just washed ma hair.”

Dante e Beatrice (Mario Caserini; Italy; 1913)
Telling the tragic story of Dante’s love for Beatrice and for the city of Florence, this was a remarkably modern film. The acting was not over-exaggerated and there was the use of a triptychal split-screen technique that predated D.W. Griffith’s ‘Intolerance’ by three years.

Engelein (Peter Urban Gad; Germany; 1913)
This year’s festival contained a focus on Asta Nielsen, a Danish star who was immensely popular until the early 1920s, ostensibly in German films. She was extremely versatile, with an expressive and beautiful face, and tackled everything from broad comedy through to Hamlet (see YouTube if you don’t believe me!) This was a delightful comedy with Nielsen playing a teenage girl dressed in plaits and anklesocks. She has a mad crush on her Uncle Peter who is betrothed to another and she does everything in her power to destroy the relationship, including throwing a cat at the poor man whilst he is courting his fiancée, and trying to commit suicide, yet deciding that the water is too cold!

L’Inferno (Adolfo Padovan/Francesco Bertolini; Italy; 1911)
A version of Dante’s Inferno that was technically very advanced, with monsters, fantastic scenes, animation and uses of double-exposure. It also contained absolutely masses of nudity – there was little or no censorship at the time. Earlier in the week there were some pornographic films from a century ago that were actually the first films ever to be made in Austria, yet were struck from the history books due to their content.

The Kid (Charles Chaplin; USA; 1921)
The Bologna Cinemateca has been chosen by the Chaplin family to restore all of Chaplin’s films. Shown in the Teatro Comunale with full symphony orchestra playing Chaplin’s own musical score, I was reminded how wonderfully funny and moving this film remains. Sadly, this restored print was burned in several places, but it was interesting to see some sequences that were cut from the released version after viewing the main film.

Maciste Imperatore (Guido Brignone; Italy; 1924)
This was the opening film in this year’s festival and one of the earliest Fascist films to be made after Mussolini seized power with his March on Rome two years earlier. A comedy, the film told the story of a film strongman who stands in for the new King after he deserts the throne to pursue the woman he loves. The subtext was that Mussolini was trying to justify deposing the monarchy.

Mocny Czloweik (Henryk Szaro; Poland; 1929)
This told the story of a man who deliberately tells his depressed playwright friend that his latest work, called ‘The Strong Man’ (the translation of the film title) is bad. He provides him with the morphine with which to commit suicide and then steals the play, passing it off as his own. The play is a success and he takes up with the wife of the play’s producer, deserting his girlfriend, which proves to be his downfall as she is aware of the deception. This film was thought to be lost until 1997 and I felt it was the undiscovered gem amongst the films I saw during the festival, particularly as the city of Warsaw featured in the film was totally shattered during the German invasion.

Lo Scarabeo d’Oro (Segundo de Chomón; France; 1907)
French cinema dominated the world before World War I, and particularly those films made by Pathé Frères, which were renowned for their lavish sets and use of advanced techniques, such as stop-motion and animation. This film was typical of its time – it’s a stencil-coloured (yes, colour!) film of Folies-Bergère dancers being transformed into scarab-flies by a magician. It was extremely beautiful, and I played my normal game of ‘spot the cockerel’. The Pathé logo was a cockerel and this was used somewhere in every scene of these early films to stop copyright infringements.

As you can tell, I had a great time at this year’s festival. Matteo and Julie have said I can stay with them again, and I am really looking forward to spending another week immersed in the shadows of yesteryear.

- Neil Watson