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  • Writer's pictureJack Salvadori

Raiders of the Lost Art

Updated: Jul 1

Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato is the cinephile’s ultimate oasis


“No, this time I won’t go”.

After months of pondering, rationality struck in and I came to the painful conclusion that, alas, I should skip this year’s edition of Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna’s annual celebration of restored films.  It certainly wasn’t going to be easy to miss out on a few days of cinematic ecstasy, watching old classics embraced by the mesmerising sights of the Renaissance city, while living high on the tortellini. A difficult call, but life gets in the way, and I was persuaded to partake in spirit only…

And then, a week before its launch in the second half of June, the programme was released.

My hair stood on end at the sight of the oversaturated cornucopia of restorations, but my cinephile blood froze when, to my bewilderment, I spotted The Searchers on glorious 70mm. I called my friends in disbelief; my eyes did not fail me, as they also saw the schedule. At that point it wasn’t a matter of will, nor means of possibility: it was a calling.


Cut to a week later.

I’m on a flight, my bank account still grumbling, but no regrets: the pilgrimage had begun. I take comfort in thinking that this addiction is shared by thousands, who, counting 10,000 people per day, crowd Il Cinema Ritrovato’s 38th edition, catching legendary niche films they never heard of, or rewatching flicks they know by heart. It may sound like an easy win to only present already acclaimed masterpieces from the past, but the way the Cineteca offers its restorations has the same thrill of a new release. And that is mostly because either you have never seen that film, or at the very least, you have never seen it that way, restored in its best shape and former glory. “It’s not an old movie if you haven’t seen it”, as Lauren Bacall puts it.


“Ritrovato” means found/discovered, and the Cineteca di Bologna’s mission, restoring over 140 films every year, is to cast a light into the oblivion, resurrecting forgotten works, and allowing them to shine again on the silver screen. But through this rescue quest, films are not the only archaeological find to resurface: we get to rediscover that naïve, child-like sense of wander, feeling like pirates scouring through history, searching for a lost treasure among the many preserved works. Here, cult films are not just entertainment but a literal cult- or even a religion, considering the numbers of international acolytes, with Cineteca’s director Gian Luca Farinelli as its beloved pontiff. Across its 9 days run, all the screenings are instantly sold out in the many venues, this year including the precious addition of Cinema Modernissimo, quite literally a “cinema ritrovato”.

A historic theatre from the early 20th century, Modernissimo was forgotten and laid underneath the city centre like a volcano ready to erupt. Finally, with Martin Scorsese’s blessing, it is now back in use in its all-encompassing nostalgic charm. Every seat is dedicated to a cinematic icon, carefully positioned next to one another: Orson Welles sits next to Peter Bogdanovich, Marcello Mastroianni sneaks between Sophia Loren and Anita Ekberg, and Godzilla shares the armrest with King Kong.

Yet the kermesse’ centrepieces are the al fresco screenings in the city’s main square, the Piazza Maggiore, where delegates, tourists and residents come in their thousands every night, cramming the square and bouncing laughter and tears off the adjacent basilica and the old palazzos. Like moths fatally attracted to light, the devoted cinephiles orbit around the shining beam of the gargantuan projector towering at the end of the piazza, slashing through the darkness. And if it rains, it won’t matter (as long as the dampness matches the film’s vibe)- “you cannot see the raindrops on the screen, its powerful light is stronger”, sodden film critic Matthew Turner proudly stated after watching The Conversation (1974).


Throughout the festival, the silent films are among the most popular events, often accompanied by a live orchestral or piano score, with queues forming outside the screening rooms. I wasn’t hallucinating, I did hear two 6 year old children discussing Josef von Sternberg and Erich von Stroheim while queuing. This year, amid a loaded selection covering all decades of cinema history, there were many opportunities to connect with the medium’s origins. The opening showcased a collection of Pathé early shorts centred around cafés, including the remarkable Le Cake-Walk Forcé and Les Chiens Policiers, both from 1907, the latter causing an energetic applause midway through when, after several attempts, a dog finally manages to jump a wall. These primordial days of cinema were also romanticised by A Trick of the Light (1995), Wim Wender’s fairytale take on the Skladanowsky Brothers, inventors of the projector’s ancestor the “bioskop”, mixing docudrama and fictional reenactment and experimentally shot with an authentic ancient camera to recreate the aesthetics of the time. After all Wim Wenders, a regular guest at Il Cinema Ritrovato, is the patron saint of cinephilia, and the festival further honoured him by presenting his iconic Buena Vista Social Club (1999), and his decisive masterpiece Paris, Texas (1984), whose new, spellbinding 4K restoration redefines the very essence of colours. The silent programme would not be complete without Chaplin, whose The Adventurer (1917) reiterated the Tramp’s ageless comedic genius. Laughter endured with a couple of Laurel & Hardy early works, including Putting Pants on Philip (1927), when the boys were still playing fictional characters and not themselves yet. From a silent star to a talking legend, with her ear-defining seminal voice, Marlene Dietrich is another protagonist of the festival, with has an entire strand dedicated to her groundbreaking 70 years long career.


My personal discovery, the lost treasure I “found”, was hidden in 1970. It’s the Czech surreal comedy The Murder of Mr. Devil, the only picture directed by Ester Krumbachová, sadly. This anti-rom-com stars Jirina Bohdalovà as an aging lady dreaming of marriage, who, through her culinary skills, tries to woo the attentions of an obnoxious and insignificant man. On the side, he’s also the devil, and his voracious appetite seems only to be for her… food. A delicious little film that I hope will find a newer, broader audience thanks to this restoration. Always looking at the past, the festival also brings modern works focused on familiar themes, such as the documentaries La Batalha de Porto, about the hardships faced by a historic Portuguese cinema, and Film is Dead. Long Live Film!, celebrating celluloid collectors in all their weirdness.

 

And now, the reason why I came to Bologna in the first place…

Warner Bros and The Film Foundation restored some American classics, who would benefit from a reprint on 70mm, the legendary format that doubles the width of the celluloid- and the pleasure of watching it. What else deserves such treatment but John Ford’s epic masterpiece, a visual feast that begs to be seen in all its VistaVision triumph?

It’s Saturday night. Piazza Maggiore, of course. Sitting around my friends, Wim Wenders right behind us. Eyes locked on the huge screen, palpable trepidation, the projector roars its light… and fiat lux: The Searchers (1956). Through Max Steiner’s symphony, the plastic chairs become saddles, and the majestic Monument Valley manifests like a painting in the Italian piazza; it’s so beautiful it should be a permanent addition. On the big screen, every wrinkle on Wayne’s weathered face, every grimace, and every squint tells a story of its own. You can practically feel the grains of red sand as he rides away through the desert. Playing Ethan, he is searching for his kidnapped niece, little Debbie, driven by a mix of vengeance, duty, and good old-fashioned stubbornness. Years go by, but the chase never ends, becoming a dark obsession that turns him into a terrifying antihero. And what are we searching for? While watching this tale of fixation, it’s impossible not to mirror it with the cinephile’s unyielding dedication for the perfect cinematic experience, travelling relentlessly, hunting down every frame of celluloid joy with the irrational tenacity of Ethan tracking the Indian chief. It’s a passionate pursuit that borders on obsession, much like Ethan’s undying determination to find his niece. And when Ethan finally finds Debbie after so many years, his maniac craze fades, and he lifts her up like the child she used to be pronouncing the everlasting line: “let’s go home, Debbie”. At that very moment, John Wayne lifted all 7000 people in the piazza. It was a transformative, emotional experience that transcends mere film viewing and became an immersive journey into those vast, unforgiving landscapes.

 

Il Cinema Ritrovato is not like any other festival, the winners are the satisfied spectators, there’s no glitz and glamour and the only stars you see are the shooting ones sprinkling the night sky above the Piazza Maggiore. Giving a new meaning to posterity, Il Cinema Ritrovato defies death, offering a timeless sanctuary for films to be loved once more, and a cinephile’s paradise, with ghosts, or rather angels, beaming all around. For some streaming executive who recently claimed that going to the cinema is obsolete, and watching Lawrence of Arabia on a phone is just as good, I present to the reader’s jury the following evidence.


That’ll be the day, Ted Sarandos! Because underneath the big screen, young and old, cowboys and indians, oscar winners and mere cinephiles: we’re all the same, dark silhouettes lit by the flickering backlight, lined up in an emotional embrace, a platonic orgy, sharing a deep sense of longing, and dreaming the same dream.


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