Il Cinema Ritrovato: Forward into the Past
Youssef Chahine's Iskanderija... lih? (Alexandria...Why?, 1978). Courtesy of Il Cinema Ritrovato
June 22 - 30, 2019
Considering Venice’s dwindling reputation, Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato may well soon become Italy’s flagship film festival, if it hasn’t yet already. Every year the festival attracts more and more people from every corner of the world. Inveterate cinephiles born right after or even before WWII sit side by side with 21st century film students and lovers. If there ever was a festival fit to disprove the cyclical claim that cinema is dead or is on its way to the cemetery, it is definitely Il Cinema Ritrovato. While the programming is always structured around temporal, thematic or authorial criteria the sense of discovery the festival offers is best experienced by randomly jumping from section to section. What follows is the outcome of random sampling dictated by a contradictory pull between libidinal impulses and attempts at philological coherence that inevitably emerges when facing a catalog so rich in its offerings.
By now an integral part of the festival’s mandate, the rediscovery and restoration of “forgotten” films by the L’Immagine Ritrovata brought to light this year an early gem from an underestimated genius of world cinema: Marco Ferreri. L’Ape regina (1963) was the first feature film the Italian director realized after returning from Franco’s Spain, along with his longtime screenwriter and collaborator Rafael Azcona. The film tells the story of a religious woman who, opposed to premarital sex, persuades a free-spirited bachelor to marry her—only for him to die mid-coitus. Accused of misogyny by some critics, L’Ape regina became a cause célèbre and inaugurated Ferreri’s lifelong troubles with censors. If there was something Italian directors could get away with in the early ’60s, it was indeed misogyny (they still do in 2019…). A closer and less perfunctory look at the film reveals, in fact, a vitriolic criticism of the traditional family, which is precisely what got the censors fired up. The censorship board decreed that “the film is decidedly against common decency […] and goes against the dominant morals concerning marriage.” In Ferreri’s film, to quote the Italian critic Tullio Masoni, “the historic allegiance between Catholic Church and Italian State is subjected to a radical critique the likes of which have rarely been seen on the big screen.” Partly due to the regression into barbarism that the festival’s host country is presently undergoing, L’Ape regina remains strikingly relevant as the traditional, heterosexual family remains the reactionary center of daily life. Here’s hoping that the caustic irreverence of Marco Ferreri can be the muse of tomorrow’s film desecrators, for even God doesn’t know just how desperately an antidote is needed against the lethal conformity of our times.
A whole anthology on anti-conformist cinema could be drawn from the work of Jiří Menzel and his fellow conspirators who, under the journalistic label of the Czech New Wave, realized some of the most inspired works of cinematic disobedience. After having documented the story of the “Henri Langlois of India” in Celluloid Man (2012), Shivendra Singh Dungarpur decided to reconstruct in great and much needed detail the artistic parable of Jiří Menzel. But while Czechmate: In Search of Jiří Menzel (2018) is indeed dedicated to the director of the Oscar-winning Closely Watched Trains (1966), it also looks at an entire chapter of collective film history and chronicles it with both love and investigative curiosity. Like in every film movement, the foundational element of the Nová vlna was mobility, a kinetic tendency to question and surpass ossified forms, and create a multiplicity of styles and aesthetic modifications of the canon. The history of this creative upheaval is recounted by its protagonists in both archival and contemporary footage shot by the director while he looks for his titular muse, in turn conjuring the political and artistic context of an entire epoch. If labels usually evoke the existence of unitary models, the image of the Czech New Wave that emerges from Dungarpur’s documentary is a polyhedric mobilization of voices and approaches, all driven by a joyful insubordination (albeit tinted with darker undertones) that for a short while illuminated the soviet dreariness of the Eastern Bloc. The invaluable merit of Czechmate is not only that of having exhumed the memory of the filmmakers of this time, but to have reconstructed the stories behind them and, most vitally, to have explored the interconnectedness of individual genius with contextual contingency.
Though the collapse of the Soviet Bloc gave way, in most instances, to similarly unjust systems poorly disguised as neoliberal democracy, the genuine hopes for a non-totalitarian future were indeed high by the end of the 1980s. It is precisely this sense of unknowability and open possibility that traverses like a tremor throughout Oblako-raj (Cloud-Paradise, 1990) by Nikolaj Dostal. In a nondescript town, the likes of which makes up most of Russia outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, the end of Communism has been consummated but its replacement has yet to be born. An imperceptible wide-angle lens frames the daily grind of small-town Russia in all its absurdist glory until the film’s extravagant protagonist has to leave for the far east of the country in pursuit of unspecified business. The whole village mobilizes around this sudden change, bringing them together in anticipation. During the press conference in Locarno, Switzerland, where the film won the Silver Leopard, a journalist asked the director whether the film could be considered “surrealist”, Dostal replied matter-of-factly: “No, it’s the Russian reality.” Oblako-raj, among other lyrical things, has that singularly Russian ability to conjure poetry of the purest kind out of abjection and squalor. It is a microcosmic parable about the world’s biggest nation staring out in awe at another abyss, its historic resignation briefly illuminated by hope. This hyperbolically fragile film inhabits an interregnum between Soviet cinema and the free-market savagery that would follow soon after, a small cinematic poem suspended in a time of incredulous beauty.
Of a completely different order, both political and aesthetic, were the films produced in the Soviet-occupied Afghanistan of the 1980s. What We Left Unfinished (2019) by Mariam Ghani tells their pretty incredible story, which starts, present day, at Afghan Films (the national film institute of Afghanistan), where the director first visited in 2011, and goes back to 1978, when a military coup put the communists in power and attracted “Russian attention.” Ghani’s extraordinary documentary stemmed from her efforts to preserve those films from deterioration, some of them having been archived but unfinished. As to why the director thought the story of these unfinished films had to be told:
For me, an unfinished project is like a loose thread in history—and pulling on that thread led me on a five-year journey that extends far past what is contained in this feature film. As I reassembled film fragments and people who had been scattered by war, I realized that the process of making the film was mirroring a larger process still happening in Afghanistan, whereby the fraught, unsettled, and contested histories of the Communist period are gradually surfacing into public discourse.
The fragments of films featured in the documentary make for a truly curious mix of action movie à la Chuck Norris and educational agitprop by Soviet Department for Agitation and Propaganda (at the very end of its political and creative line…). However imperfect and uncertain in its purpose, What We Left Unfinished is powerful enough to rouse a (fetishistic?) interest in a virtually unknown chapter of world cinema history. One where these two allegedly separate realms, cinema and history, cannot be individually considered.
A reminder of how provincial film culture and its Eurocentrism can actually be came with the screening of Youssef Chahine’s Iskanderija… lih? (Alexandria…Why?, 1979), an autobiographical portrait of the Egyptian director’s cosmopolitan hometown. Set during WWII, as the battle of El Alamein raged at the gates of Alexandria, the film follows multiple characters in the multi-confessional mosaic of a city where Arabs, Greeks, Jews, and Italians lived side by side. Banned throughout the Arab world, Iskanderija… lih? was accused of endorsing Anwar Sadat’s policies (the Egyptian president then was the first Arab leader to officially recognize and visit Israel in 1977). It is also the first Arab movie to ever depict a gay relationship, here between an Arab nationalist and a British soldier and it does so with remarkable tact and without resorting to homophobic stereotypes. Other sublots include the story of Yahia, a teenage boy obsessed with Hollywood movies who dreams of becoming an actor and clashes with his English teacher about which of Shakespeare’s plays they will stage at school. Rich in empathy and subtextual significance is the story of a Jewish family packing their belongings as Hitler tries to enter Alexandria, effectively anticipating the exodus that would take place in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. A veritable polyphony of languages and cultures, Chahine’s film is a bittersweet ode to a city where Arabic, French, Italian, Greek, and English were spoken daily and is also the first installment of a tetralogy which includes Hadduta misrija (An Egyptian Story, 1982), Iskanderija kaman ove kaman (Alexandria Again and Forever, 1990), and Iskanderija… New York (Alexandria… New York, 2004). The sublime work of one of the many masters, known and lesser known, that Il Cinema Ritrovato continues to unwaveringly shine a light on.