Bologna’s Cinema Ritrovato Festival Moves Ahead by Looking Back


“My dirty secret is that I love 4K,” said a garrulous American woman sitting behind me to her incredulous screening companion. The confession — who would ever admit to preferring cold, antiseptic DCP to celluloid, still vibrant and sumptuous no matter how damaged the print? — seemed especially sordid given the setting. We were at the thirtieth edition of Il Cinema Ritrovato (“cinema rediscovered”), an eight-day celebration of old films, both classics and rarities, some dating back to the birth of the medium itself. The event is held every summer in Bologna, Italy, and organized by the Cineteca di Bologna, one of the greatest film archives in the world. This installment of the festival, which concluded July 2, did, in fact, project several of its 500-plus titles digitally; the conversation I eavesdropped on occurred shortly before the world premiere of the 4K restoration of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s burlesque-hall policier Quai des Orfèvres (1947).

But for celluloid fanatics, Cinema Ritrovato provides infinite balm. Here one could relish, as I did, a vintage Technicolor 35mm dye-transfer print of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece of sexual deviancy, Marnie (1964). Or gaze raptly at the apparatuses through which some of the festival offerings had been threaded: During an outdoor screening at the Piazzetta Pier Paolo Pasolini of Jean Epstein’s impressionist melodrama Coeur Fidèle (The Faithful Heart, 1923), I found the bluish steam being emitted from the top of the enormous carbon-arc projector even more spectacular than the filmmaker’s innovative use of double exposure and distortion.

This was my inaugural visit to Cinema Ritrovato, an event of such overwhelming bounty that I resolved, even after carefully consulting the handsomely designed 400-page catalog, to plan my daily screening schedule solely by whim. Could any decision of what to see possibly be the wrong one? My choice to revisit Marnie — a film I’ve seen at least ten times — was informed not only by my ardor for its strangeness and the superb blank performance of Tippi Hedren in the title role but also by a wish to experience Hitchcock’s last great movie with a theater full of strangers from around the world. (The majority of Cinema Ritrovato attendees are programmers, archivists, academics, and journalists, but the reasonable eighty-euro cost of a festival pass makes the event extremely popular with Bolognese cinephiles, as do the free nightly screenings in the city’s grand Piazza Maggiore.) More specifically, I had hoped that watching Marnie in the Cinema Arlecchino on the Via Delle Lame would forever eradicate the horrible experience of my previous viewing of the film two years ago at 209 West Houston Street: Many in the crowd at Film Forum on this particular spring night cackled and snorted throughout Hitchcock’s very serious, stylized tale of a woman whose multiple aberrations stem from a ghastly childhood trauma. Fortunately, none of the roughly two hundred spectators in the Arlecchino engaged in this kind of derisive behavior — a scourge that has continued unchecked in New York City’s rep houses.

Instead, the mood in that humid auditorium was one of reverential awe, a veneration that throughout the festival sometimes verged on the giddily fetishistic. This spirit was especially evident during the “Technicolor Reference Collection Show,” a compendium of single reels from nine Hollywood-studio films released in the 1950s that had been consulted to make sure that the color palette of any new prints struck matched that of the originals. “This is the only audience for whom the beginning, middle, and end of a film do not matter,” joked Michael Pogorzelski of the Academy Film Archive, who introduced the presentation. For these two hours, at least, he was right: Viewers indulged in near-Talmudic scrutiny of the various shades of red, say, in Agnes Moorehead’s flame-colored hair and crimson lips in the ten-minute segment of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955). Some of those ruby hues would recur in the boutonnières sported by Judy Garland and the two male dancers who flank her during the “Gotta Have Me Go With You” number in George Cukor’s A Star Is Born (1954) — a sequence that caused me, still in a jet-lagged altered state, to experience something close to Stendhal syndrome. (Sometimes, though, the dutiful supplication that dominated the festival morphed into blasphemy, never more so than when a half-dozen spectators raised their arms skyward to record the Cinématographe-projected 1895 Lumière actualités — the first films ever screened for a public audience — on their phones.)

Of the fifteen or so films that I saw for the first time, several of them titles I had never even heard of before, made by directors whose names were also new to me, Nico Papatakis’s Les Abysses (1963) was a particular highlight. This reworking of the infamous case of France’s Papin sisters — domestic servants who killed their mistress and her daughter in 1933, an incident that inspired Jean Genet’s play The Maids (1947) and numerous other films — stands out for its “full-bodied hysteria,” in the felicitous words of my festival roommate, a friend who is a professor of cinema studies on the West Coast. The movie begins with the shrieking and plate-smashing of the murderous siblings, played by real-life sisters Francine and Colette Bergé; this cacophony and chaos continues for ninety minutes and, astonishingly, left me not utterly depleted but reinvigorated.

And forever imprinted on my limbic system are the opening five minutes of Leonardo Favio’s Soñar, Soñar (To Dream, to Dream, 1976), an odd yet profoundly touching buddy movie released just a few months after Argentina’s military coup. As sunset approaches, a municipal employee played by Carlos Monzón, a world boxing champ at the time, cycles past an extravagantly hirsute carny portrayed by Gian Franco Pagliaro, a beloved, Italian-born protest singer. Pagliaro’s character, resting by a tree, asks Monzón’s for a match and then tells the city worker he looks just like “Charlie” Bronson — a compliment that sparks this oblique love story. The moment is made all the more romantic by the beauty of crepuscular light caught on 35mm film — a honey-colored yellow that, as a curator pal lamented afterward, “we’ll never see again.”