Best of the Fest: Il Cinema Ritrovato

Fedor Tot reflects on this year's incarnation of the Italian festival dedicated to rediscovering and reframing the cinema of the past

After two COVID-struck years in which Il Cinema Ritrovato scrabbled on in restrictive and restricted capacities, the festival came back in full fashion this year. Set in Bologna, home to one of the oldest universities in the world, it’s appropriate that this festival should be so focused on film history itself – on reframing, re-shaping and rediscovering the canon of cinema. As a result, the crowd is appropriately cinephiliac, bringing together critics, curators, archivists, scholars and just plain old enthusiasts.

The festival headliners hit up the grand outdoor screenings at the Piazza Maggiore, which culminated on the Sunday with some 10,000 people enjoying a screening of The Blues Brothers (John Landis, 1980). Whilst the Maggiore screens many of the festival's more populist fare, it’s further down in the programme that you’ll find many of the great treasures hidden away. If Cannes, Berlin et al. are where the future of cinema is dreamed up, here is where you’ll find the past reimagined.

The festival’s launchpad as a place to “recanonise” forgotten filmmakers and movements is front and centre throughout. Il Cinema Ritrovato has made a habit of programming at least one Hollywood auteur each year, rediscovering their work in the process. This year it was the turn of Hugo Fregonese, an Argentinian-born director who came to Hollywood in the ‘50s after making some notable Argentinian noirs. Hollywood however, quickly seemed to drag him down, and soon he was off to Europe, making films in Spain, Britain, Germany and elsewhere.

Turning generally to westerns and noirs about lonely men drifting into town and trying to find a place to settle (perhaps a reflection of his own migratory professional history), Fregonese’s American films remain his best. His first US film, One Way Street (1950) is a noir romance with a conflicted James Mason unable to settle down in what is effectively a beach-side paradise and returning to his inevitable doom in the city. Its follow-up Saddle Tramp (1950) is a genial comedy western with Joel McCrea that functions as an upbeat counterpoint to One Way Street and both films have plentiful charm.

Fregonese was particularly comfortable handling ugly ambiguity and uncertainty, with conflicted protagonists swept up in the heat of the action. This all culminates in Black Tuesday (1954), a noir that by all rights should be sat along such classics as Double Indemnity and The Big Sleep, yet remains almost entirely unheard of. Helped by a truly snarling and outright nasty performance by Edward G. Robinson, this prison break film confronts capital punishment head-on without ever lapsing into message movie. It  remains Fregonese’s masterpiece.

The pinnacle of the festival was the Yugoslav season, covering the country’s film industry from the ‘50s to the late ‘60s, when the Yugoslav Black Wave emerged as one of the most radical and innovative cinemas in the world. This strand uncovers a cinema that – even before the radicalism of the Black Wave – was already pushing the boundaries of what cinema could do, where even formally classical films such as Don’t Look Back, My Son (Branko Bauer, 1956) and The Ninth Circle (France Ṥtiglic, 1960) found ways to provoke and tear at their audiences. Seeing such major classics of the Black Wave like Tri (Aleksandar Petrović, 1965) and The Ambush (Žika Pavlović, 1969) back on the big screen where they belong was like seeing a whole world anew. Given that in recent years Polish, Czechoslovak, Soviet and Hungarian cinema of the Communist era has been reappraised and re-issued (either in repertory cinemas or through Blu-ray reissues, with this festival providing a jumping point for such shifts), it would be great to see Yugoslav cinema treated with the same love.

For this writer, the riches on offer were so plentiful that there were entire strands of which I only caught one or two films. The Japanese auteur Kenji Misumi specialised in samurai films, with several Zatoichi entries and Lone Wolf and Cub in his filmography: I only caught Evil Sword (1965), and was impressed by his bold cinematic style and eye for composition. A season of Peter Lorre films included the obvious classics like M (Fritz Lang, 1931) but also terrific B-movies like The Beast with 5 Fingers (Robert Florey, 1946) and his sole directorial effort, The Lost One (1951), for which he returned to Germany. It’s fascinating in its attempts to deal frankly with the collaboration and criminality of ordinary Germans during WWII, although Lorre’s skills as a director are far below his as an actor, with his bleary-eyed, existentialist performance adrift in a rather static and stodgy film.

The festival’s ability to surprise seems endless, and nowhere was this more apparent than in Cheshmeh, or The Spring (Arby Ovanessian, 1972). One of the key films of the pre-revolutionary Iranian New Wave in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it has remained almost entirely unheard and unseen since, and what a great shame that is. With an elliptical narrative that tells of an honour killing in a mixed Christian-Muslim part of Iran, the film’s languid editing, dream-like nature, and utterly bewitching visuals culminate in something truly potent, a rumination on the ripples that death and heartbreak have on families and loved ones. The experience was truly transportational in the way only cinema can manage, and one emerges from the dark with renewed love for the artform. Therein lies the magic of Il Cinema Ritrovato. Rediscovery and renewal are the name of the game here – cinema’s future lies in the lessons of its past.

Il Cinema Ritrovato ran in Bologna between 25 June and 3 July 2022.

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