Pordenone diary 2011 – day one

Festival-goers in the foyer of the Verdi theatre for the Giornate del Cinema Muto

Here we are again in Pordenone. It’s a pleasing, unostentatious town on the Venetian plain, to the north-west of Italy, population around 50,000, and not to be found in many guidebooks. There’s just the one scenic street likely to attract the day-tripper, the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, but it’s a place whose quiet pleasures become all the more apparent if you stay for a while. Say, at a silent film festival.

So we are at the thirtieth Giornate del Cinema Muto, and if you think it’s a wonder that after thirty years they still have something new to show, well we learn in the festival catalogue that there are some 50,000 silent films held in FIAF archives and Pordenone has so far shown 6,658 of them, so we’ve a way to go yet, and the Giornate is right to pursue its policies of comprehensiveness, discovery and pushing back the boundaries. At Pordenone, silent films are always going forward, never standing still.

So we fly in via Trieste (such glorious, glorious views over Venice), a route taken by surprisingly few festival-goers, so that the three of us on the flight headed for the Giornate are treated to a festival car. For a moment, when I see my name held up on a card in the airport I think that perhaps the festival is so in awe of these Pordenone diaries that we produce each year that they have laid on a courtesy car for our special benefit. But the car is for the rather more deserving pianist John Sweeney, and thus we arrive in Pordenone in comfort and warm sunshine at four in the afternoon.

We register, and discover to our dismay that the festival catalogue has been delayed and will not be available until Tuesday. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth (inwardly at least), and we abandon plans to blog daily from the festival because the catalogue’s detailed background information is essential if we are to provide you with a solid reference work as opposed to mere impressionism. We check in at the ever-reliable Park Hotel, then head back to the centre of town and into the Verdi theatre to catch our first films (which have been screening since 14:30). A slight contretemps occurs when the Verdi staff refuse to let us into the upper floor where we prefer to sit (because the ground floor seats are not yet filled up), but we are philosophical about this, eventually.

Into the auditorium, and our first film is not one for the frivolous. The Doomed (Gantsirluni) (Georgia SSR 1930) is directed by the Georgian Lev Push, one of last year’s festival’s discoveries. The feature-length film concerns a mutiny among Russian troops in France following the October 1917 revolution. It starts with Kino-Pravda-style newsreel intercut with sloganeering, then turns into drama, with the pained faces of the mutinous soldiers in their barracks, their faces shown in the uncompromising, epic light that so characterises Soviet filmmaking of the period. I struggle to resolve the dehumanized presentation with the human fellow feeling it strives to evoke, but others find the film technically impressive.

Luisella and Raffaele Viviani (centre) in Un Amore Selvaggio (1912), from http://archiviteatro.napolibeniculturali.it/teatroViviani.html

More to my taste is Un Amore Selvaggio (Italy 1912), part of the festival’s Italy: Restrospect and Discovery strand. This is a hoot. It stars what are clearly a stage duo, bringing their larger-than-life stage personas to the screen. The duo are brother and sister Luisella and Raffaele Viviani, Neapolitan stage actors who specialise in native dramas of grimy realism and high passion, usally directed by Raffaele. It is the only one of their three films to survive. Here they play a Sicilian brother and sister in a drama of intense revenge, where she asks her brother to kill a farm owner who has rejected her advances because she is his social inferior, only preventing him from doing so when she changes her mind. Never have eyes rolled so much, arms waved so passionately, nor hair been pulled back so constantly. Yet it is not comical; rather it jolts the audience out of complacency, showing an edgier form of early cinema than we usually experience out of the comparatively milder stage traditions of northern Europe and America. When Raffaele looks like he wants to fight, he sems more than ready to deal in real blows; when Luisella wants you killed, the audience starts worrying for you.

One fascinating minor detail. The sister in Un Amore Viaggio tries to poison a female rival by dipping sulphur matches into her drink. We learn that a Hungarian film shown earlier in the day (presumably A Tolonc) features exactly the same strategy. It doesn’t work for Luisella – her would-be victim merely puts down the drink because it tastes funny. Did poisoning by matches ever work? Was it common?

More high passion follows. The title of Più che la morte (Italy 1912) translates as ‘worse than death’ (all of the films at Pordenone come with titles projected beneath the screen translated into English and Italian). The name of the director of this Cines historical drama is not known, which is a great shame, because he demonstrates eye-catching technical skill, with dramatic foregrounding of characters and striking use of lateral camera movement. Our hero (in some nineteenth-century setting) betrays some friends to save his wife from torture by the police. His friends are his friends no longer. They tie him to a post, and through two sets of windows he sees his wife and child trapped in a room which is then set on fire. Nice framing of the inset background action we tell ourselves, while shivering at the horror and wondering at the mind who made such an entertainment.

Più che la morte is one of a number of films shown at the Giornate from the Desmet collection of the Netherlands EYE Film Institute. The collection of Dutch cinema owner and film distributor Jean Desmet was recently inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, one of the few films or film collections on the prestigious register, and an interesting example of one country championing the preservation of the cultural artefacts of others, since few of the Desmet films are Dutch.

The evening’s festival treat is Novi Vavilon (New Babylon) (USSR 1929), part of the Shostakovich & FEKS strand, of which more in a later diary. The film is screened to Shostakovich’s score played by the FVG Mitteleuropa Orchestra, but these grand occasions (and the demand that you take a particular seat) are not to our taste, so we retire for the evening.

This year’s Giornate is seeing greater coverage online than seems to have been the case before. There is the Giornate’s Twitter account, finally leaping into life, and a wide selection of photographs on its Flickr account, from which photographs of day one are here. There are also videos from their YouTube channel, some of which we shall embed here for the days where they belong.

Stay tuned for the Bioscope’s Pordenone diary day two, when we shall bring you the earliest Disney cartoon, Japanese polar explorers, the parting of the Red Sea, and Georgian peasant radio enthusiasts.

Pordenone diary 2011 – day two
Pordenone diary 2011 – day three
Pordenone diary 2011 – day four
Pordenone diary 2011 – day five
Pordenone diary 2011 – day six
Pordenone diary 2011 – day seven
Pordenone diary 2011 – day eight