Never intended to be a mere celebration of movies from the past, the 32nd edition of Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna dispensed with any residual rhetoric about the supposed glory of what cinema used to be in favor of engaging with the present. “An obsession with the first person, I, and with the unique and individual experience dominates the present” the festival catalog noted, reminding us that “cinema was born from the word ‘we.’” It is the collective dimension—which decreed the success of the cinématrographe, a public medium, over the Kinetoscopio, a private one—that the festival fights to keep alive, not least of all with its free open air screenings in the city’s main square, the Piazza Maggiore.
The history of cinema at the festival is not simply on display, but rather, questioned and problematized, and its least known chapters given their due prominence. Most vitally, the festival reclaims cinema from the fetishistic objectification of cinephilia and places it back into the wider world from which it originates. The restoration of Marc Allégret’s Voyage au Congo (1927), written and devised with the novelist André Gide, for instance, was counter-programmed along with Statues Also Die (1953) by Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, and Ghislain Cloquet, “a film that revealed how deeply racism is engrained in western culture,” in effect presenting the colonial gaze alongside its reality check. “The Cinemalibero section,” the curators point out, “is the ‘reverse shot’ of this question,” featuring “decolonized” films that undermine the eurocentrism that has characterized cinema since its very inception. Even more vital than the dialectical capacity to oppose every shot with a confrontational reverse shot is the possibility for cinema to become a witness to history beyond its documentary function. Exemplary is the case of Wu Jia qi (Spoiling the Wedding Day, 1951) by Zhu Shilin and Chen Bai, a film set in Shanghai, but shot in Hong Kong, where the troupe had taken refuge after the triumph of communism. In the imaginary Shanghai of the film, pre-revolutionary life goes on unfazed, oblivious to the dramatic changes sweeping the city, which the directors freeze in the amber of time, possibly hoping that things would soon return to normality.
In the same sidebar, “The Rebirth of Chinese Cinema (1941 – 1951),” a comic-strip adaptation from 1949, San Mao Liu lang ji by Zhao Ming and Yan Gong, was screened. First appearing in print in 1935, the character Sanmao is a street kid with only three hairs on his iconic bald head who spawned from the pencil of Zhang Leping, a famous Chinese comic artist. Sanmao became popular when Zhang’s strips began appearing in the daily newspaper Da Gong Bao, which at one point in the film he is shown selling. His stint as a paperboy is but one of the many ways in which he tries out to make ends meet before literally selling himself to a rich lady. Though finally well fed, Sanmao quickly grows tired of the stifling formalities of bourgeois life and decides to return to the streets just in time to see the troops of his namesake, Mao Tse-Dong, entering the city. A sort of Maoist version of Zazie dans le Métro (as if written by Charles Dickens), the film possesses some of Raymond Queneau’s anarchic spirit as well as the visual exuberance of Louis Malle’s adaptation. Interspersed with brief animated sequences, San Mao Liu lang ji was completed on the eve of the Communist victory and was immediately banned by Kuomintang censors, only to be released a few months later with the newly added ending showing Sanmao and his friends celebrating the arrival of Mao’s troops.
Timely to say the least was the decision to screen a string of films that each in their own mode, be it presciently fictional or documentary, explored the roots and manifestations of fascism. One only wishes they could be watched and engaged with as mere historical documents, but after the economic crisis successfully exhumed the corpse of fascism from the sewers of history, films like Herbert Kline’s Lights Out in Europe (1940), André De Toth’s None Shall Escape (1944) and Jérôme Prieur’s documentary Ma vie en Allemagne au temps de Hitler (2018) took on a tragic relevance (not least in the festival’s host country, whose recent parliamentary elections unleashed the repressed demons of the past). Viewed against the political disorientation seemingly paralyzing oppositional forces the world over, these three titles offered a sobering example of the role that cinema can still play in dismantling toxic historical and political narratives. Despite the retrospective respectability these films came to enjoy, it is worth remembering that dissent is hardly ever a marketable asset, as the case of Herbert Kline proves (a committed anti-fascist before, during and after WWII, he nevertheless found himself on the Hollywood blacklist from 1952 to 1972).
Working in the interregnum between the soothing duplicity of Neorealism and the corrosive inclemency of ‘60s and ‘70s Italian comedy, Luciano Emmer was the recipient of one of this year’s monographic retrospectives. Derogatively termed “pink neorealism,” Emmer’s cinema simultaneously chronicles and embodies the passage from the sniveling black-and-white of postwar Italian cinema to the colors of the impending economic miracle. Still entangled in the exonerating benevolence, Rossellini and De Sica peddled to a nation itching to reassign blame for its wartime actions to Nazi Germany. The films of Luciano Emmer, unlike those of the Neorealists, accurately captured the state of Italian society at the time. Very much like the transitions they describe, whether they be the entrance into adulthood in Le ragazze di Piazza di Spagna (1952) or the generational gap in Terza liceo (1954), Emmer’s films froze in time a liminal period in the country’s history. With a remarkable eye for behavioral details, the Italian director dramatized the advent of an affluent society without idealizing what came before while also maintaining an ironic detachment towards the deformities of consumerism. The pathetic haste with which the nascent middle class tried to cheat its way into “respectable” society is on comic display in Camilla (1954), a film in which “I had perhaps intuited the subsequent loss of certain traditional values, which certain hypocritical moralists vainly hope will return, the director himself commented. The strength of his filmmaking resides precisely in the distance between Emmer and his characters, whom he never puts on trial, let alone judges. In the absence of a given ethical viewpoint, the spectator is forced to interpret the ethical and social dilemmas Emmer has staged completely on her own.
Paradoxically, Il Cinema Ritrovato manages to relate to the present through the archival excavation of cinema’s past at a time when a lot of festivals struggle to overcome their self-referentiality. Far from a completist cult, the festival is a testament to the necessity and vitality of cinematographic memory stretching beyond the borders of the screen.