“Pordenone’s not much of a place,” a character says to Lieutenant Henry in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Times change. For years, scholars, archivists, academics, and celluloid junkies from around the world have been storming the workaday provincial town in Italy’s northeastern Friuli region every October for the Giornate del Cinema Muto, also known as the Pordenone Silent Film Festival.
This week-long event began in the aftermath of an earthquake that devastated Friuli, when a pair of local film buffs who wanted to do something for their area organized a casual event in 1982. Removed from the conventional image of Italy, the region is a bridge between the Mediterranean and Central Europe. Pasolini grew up here and wrote his first poems in the local dialect. In 1999, when the original venue, an old movie house, was demolished, the Giornate moved down the road to the storybook-lovely town of Sacile, located on a natural island formed by the river Livenza.
This year’s main section, a huge retro of silent-screen comediennes called “Funny Ladies,” tracked the evolution of film comedy from 1903 to 1928 through the work of 70 actresses—among them Clara Bow, Marion Davies, Bea Lillie, and Flora Finch. (It also included a surprisingly snappy turn from Dorothy Mackaill in Eddie Cline’s hilarious 1928 Ladies’ Night in a Turkish Bath.) The fest’s ambitious “Griffith Project,” which is screening the entire remaining oeuvre of D.W. Griffith year by year, reached 1912, with over 50 films on view. Opening night, Clarence Badger’s It (1927) was accompanied by a score composed and conducted by Carl Davis, and performed by a chamber orchestra; the rest of the week, films were in the hands of seven accomplished pianists.
Sidebars were devoted to Swiss cinema, the Italian avant-garde, and Jeno Janovics, the father of Transylvanian cinema. Outstanding among the Swiss selections was Jean Choux’s La Vocation d’André Carel (1925), in a gorgeous tinted and toned print, a coming-of-age story that marks the film debut of the great Michel Simon. Most of Janovics’s 30 films are now lost; the ones screened involved much heavy lifting and juicy histrionics. In The Last Night (1917), a woman abandons her family to return to the stage; years later, when a young man falls in love with her, she recognizes him as her son. In The Specter of the World (1920), a famous opera singer triumphs as Tosca, unaware that she has contracted syphilis from her promiscuous husband.
This year’s revelation was Hans Steinhoff’s Nachtgestalten (The Alley Cat, 1929). Steinhoff, who died in a plane crash while attempting to escape from the Red Army advancing on Prague in 1945, is best known for a few Nazi propaganda films, but his silent work has no rep at all. Alley Cat, an Anglo-German coproduction, comes as a canon-busting surprise, a tense London-set backstage thriller, visually stunning down to the handsome deco intertitles. One of Pordenone’s delights is a nightcap series of oddball items shown around midnight. This year, a few vintage X-rated French shorts from 1925 were in the mix, including a gay and lesbian Madame Butterfly and The Duck, a pastoral gem involving two farmers, a maiden, and a fine feathered friend. The thumping piano accompaniments were duly orgasmic.