The keen-eyed may have noticed that your editor was not at Pordenone this year for the Giornate del Cinema Muto, the world-renowned festival of silent cinema. Alas this is true, as pressing matters demanded that I be elsewhere this time around. But that does not mean that the Bioscope was not represented, nor that it cannot bring you its by now traditional daily report on the festival’s screenings. For we put a reporter on the case, who has most diligently supplied us with a 2009 Pordenone diary. The reporter has requested that he or she remain anonymous, and that these reports are billed simply as coming from our own correspondent.
Here, therefore, is the report on day one (Saturday 3 October):
So here we are again, in the North of Italy, to gorge ourselves on Silent Film for another celebration of Giornate Del Cinema Muto … but would this, as the first post-credit-crunch Giornate, be different? The memories of last year, when the world economy seemed to be hurtling to Hell in a handbasket as we tried to glean information from Italian headlines and hotel CNN screens, dark mutterings of invading the Verdi, and barricading ourselves in with the prints and the pianists, and never going home … had receded a bit, and most of us had found a way of getting here once more. There were some subtle differences; the Book Fair, billed as not happening this year, actually did but on a smaller scale; and shared the office premises. And at the Posta, opposite the Verdi, the tipples of choice had altered with the exchange rate as British fans of ale were faced with a £7.80 bill for a pint of Birra Rosso, or £4.40 for a lager. Red wine was suddenly the drink of choice. That, and it seemed to me, correctly or not, that this year more people had opted for part-week trips rather than the full week marathon; not however, your intrepid reporter … here for the duration.
The first-day routine is unchanged; to the office, hand over the donation if applicable (seems rude not to, it’s great value and helps keep the show going) and gather up the armful of freebie books and the all-important catalogue; half an inch thick of bilingual essays, context and technical details of every film and clip to be shown, divided into this year’s festival threads; a retrospective of the Franco-Russian studio Albatros; a look at the silent tellings of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and their influence worldwide; a round-up on new discoveries and restorations; and the start of a multi-year revisiting of Silent Classics that have been shown here before, but perhaps twenty or more years ago … and therefore well before the arrival of many of those now attending … a look at some Silent Divas; tributes to the British Silent Film Festival and the Jugoslav Archive, plus some early cinema, a Cesare Gravina tribute, and some documentaries on silent personalities to be shown at the Ridotto, the Verdi’s annexe. Grab the timetable, head to the Posta and decide on your week’s movements while racking up the caffeine levels … and most importantly, greeting the friends you may not have seen since the previous year.
And plunging into the first film, with no formalities, from the Albatros thread (which starts with the earlier Ermolieff films); La nuit du 11 septembre (France 1919) … which sounded good on paper but didn’t quite excite in reality. A melodrama concerning the slow revenge Fate takes on a man tempted into a crime, the film, as it survives at least, is episodic and blighted by a huge number of wordy intertitles derived from the works of Victor Hugo – which the film story wasn’t. Severin-Mars (La Roue, J’Accuse) doesn’t so much act as pose, and you cannot invest any sympathy for a single character, so come the eventual denouement of the unlikely circumstances, you’re frankly not that bothered; a pity, as when the camera ventured outside the studio sets into the landscape, as in an early sequence on a battlefield, or a seaside scene (where a hero saves the heroine from knee-deep water) the sequences are beautifully shot.
A livelier film next up from the BSFF thread; an unpretentious thriller from Stoll based on Edgar Wallace’s breakthrough novel; The Four Just Men (UK 1922). No ambitions for High Art, but a decent Mission Impossible-style tale of four slightly ambivalent upper-class crusaders for justice, taking on a businessman employing sweated labour, despite various warnings. Effective camerawork, good sharp editing and terrific use of London locations; the film is almost stolen by a cockney pickpocket used for comic relief – but the climax as the urepentant businessman awaits the deadline is imbued with real tension; a great performance from Teddy Arundell, helped by the aforementioned editing and increasingly claustrophobic camerawork.
To the opening gala, where we do get the formalities; welcoming speeches from David Robinson and local dignitaries representing the layers of local government who help subsidise the event – more importantly than ever these days.
John Gilbert and Mae Murray in The Merry Widow, from Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (Fotocollection, Filmmuseum, Wien)
The main event, though, is the Erich Von Stroheim version of The Merry Widow (USA 1925), introduced by Leatrice Joy Fountain and featuring a new orchestral score by Maud Nelissen. The film itself is almost a checklist of Von’s obsessions; militaria, aristocrats at play, wedding processions, grotesques, fetishes and matters of honour; how close it all is to the source material I’m not qualified to say, but it’s a superior piece of froth; the score, using Lehar lightly but effectively matched it to perfection. And every new film I see John Gilbert in, my perception of him changes; not just the star of legend, I’m realising what a really fine actor he was too, and what a waste his loss was to cinema.
The final film of the first (half) day, Le Bonheur Conjugal (France 1923) was a pleasant enough but flaccid rom-com with a newly-married-for-money playboy finding true love – with his wife. Gabriel Thibaudeau gave his all, but couldn’t lift it above the pretty ordinary. Again, it was hard to feel any empathy with the protagonists, and the final redemption felt hollow.
So a curate’s egg of a first day, but there is so much more to come … a small stiff drink and a good night’s sleep required. See you tomorrow.
Many thanks to our mystery reporter (doubtless those who were there will already be poring through the text in search of clues as to the scribe’s identity), and look out on the morrow for the report on day two.