Italy is rich in its cities and towns. I had never heard of Pordenone, a small to medium town an hour or so north of Venice on the plain fronting the Dolomites, until I was persuaded to come to its Giornate del Cinema Muto or Silent Film Festival, an Italian gift to the world but this is yet another attractive Italian place. This Italian richness comes also from their food and their ice creams, and from their architecture, for which they have a special genius.
Look at Pordenone’s Piazza San Marco with Duomo facade and bell-tower (above), and the mediaeval Gothic town hall, at the core of the historic centre (below), a portion of which was lost to Allied bombing in December 1944.
But also striking was the Piazzale 20 September, a broad square with a hospital for war wounded put centre stage (see at end). This is a piece of Fascist-era (I think) architecture, with a resounding inscription: quo fata trahunt retrahuntque sequamur; quicquid erit, superanda omnis fortuna ferendo est (which being translated reads: “Where Fate keeps leading us, let us follow; whatever it will be, all conquest comes through endurance”). This is iron-clad, golden-era Latin by Vergil, the poet of Roman imperialism, who like Fascist-era architecture is in our present time suspect but whose time will surely come again. Just as good is the newly built Teatro Verdi in which the majority of the festival’s films were shown, an imposing modern building of clean lines and curves.
The Pordenone Festival had several themes, two of particular interest to me: the silent films of John M Stahl, and a scatter of Scandinavian films. I found myself being drawn to the idea of reputations, how they are received and built and knocked down. Here are five thoughts:
1 John Stahl is a forgotten film-maker, undeservedly. In the new book, ‘The Call of the Heart –John M Stahl and Hollywood Melodrama,’ Charles Barr, one of the co-editors, argues that his strong association with melodrama and the ‘woman’s film’ is a key to this neglect. “Those mainstays of popular cinema are no longer the object of critical scorn or indifference, but Stahl has until now hardly benefited from this welcome change in attitude.”
What is more, Stahl died too early to feature in Kevin Brownlow’s ‘The Parade’s Gone By’ (1968) or to be lionized as one of the Hollywood long-distance auteurs such as Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, Walsh and others.
It probably made it harder that the genre he worked in was melodrama which I once thought of as an acquired taste, but as I have got older, I find I have acquired it and can now accept that narrative implausibility can be trumped by dramatic impetus. I think Robert Bresson himself was not immune to the seductions of melodrama in which the ordinary is rendered as extraordinary; at least, his Diary of a Country Priest (1950) can be seen through the lens of melodrama, and his first film, The Angels of Sin (1943), which is set in a nunnery, even more so.
2 Ernst Lubitsch’s career has a different trajectory. The filmgoer in the radical 1960s could read about his reputation and his fabled ‘Lubitsch touch’. Consider the verdict in Georges Sadoul’s ‘Dictionnaire des Cinéastes’ published in 1965: “An able man who even when he was vulgar never lacked verve and know-how.” To me it all felt old-fashioned at the time, and in several decades of rather desultory contact with his films, I have not found Lubitsch to be my glass of tea. A screening of his Forbidden Paradise (1923) in a pristine print and with beautiful musical accompaniment of violin, piano and percussion was a chance to overturn my prejudices. It did not do so, although the rest of the audience was positively enthusiastic; my embarrassment was deepened by the fact that the screening was attended by Lubitsch’s daughter, Nicola, now an elegant and vivacious elderly lady who, in a separate session, reminisced with engaging stories about her father and her life. I felt I should treat her father better than I could bring myself to do.
Nothing risks suffering from shelf-life like comedy. Forbidden Paradise is about Catherine the Great of Russia’s love affairs. A revolution was going on in the background, entirely free of violence; the Imperial soldiers were kitted out like a chorus line in over-the-top uniforms; the lord chamberlain advising Catherine (Adolphe Menjou) was a forerunner of Sir Humphrey in the TV sitcom, ‘Yes, Minister’. It was as if Lubitsch hid reality behind a veil of lightness for fear of confronting its tragic quality. This is a perfectly tenable position, if not my own, and it is a reflection on our present time that Lubitsch should be coming back into fashion. Reputations rise and fall, and rise again.
3 I did not feel that the reputation of Jacques Feyder was enhanced by a showing of his L’Atlantide (1921) torpedoed in the middle third of its narrative by the dreary décors of the secret city of Atlantis and even more so by the casting of Napierkowska as the Queen, who was definitely lacking in the femme fatale department. Georges Sadoul wielded the knife in describing her acting as ‘très 1910’.
4 The fourth reputation I had to revise in my mind was that of Gianbattista Tiepolo (1696-1770), the painter of walls and ceilings in churches and palaces to enhance the illusion of heavenly space. I went on the bus tour to the nearby town of Udine to see the Tiepolos in the Diocesan Museum created from the archiepiscopal palace. Most extraordinary was the waiting room where his technique could be studied close to, and the throne room where a remarkable version of the Judgement of Solomon
was painted on the ceiling. Like other great painters, he had the technical mastery of sky, light, fabrics, faces and flesh, and allied these gifts to compositional brilliance, taking Renaissance perspective to a more elevated level.
Tiepolo is closely linked to the flourishing of baroque architecture, another taste I have had difficulty in acquiring. I sense that fifty years ago his reputation was perhaps not as stellar as it is now and he provides another example of the fickleness of human taste. In our present culture of hyperbole, he has become an adornment.
5 Like painters, filmmakers have to adjust to the ravages of time, a process which brings us back to the festival. Its purpose is to ensure that silent films get exposure, since without it they are never going to receive the critical judgement and appreciation due to them. Without the work of archives and the exposure of their labours at events like the Giornate we would be deprived of the opportunity of seeing the Scandinavian films of the silent era. We know about Hollywood before the coming of sound, about German Expressionist cinema, about French masterpieces of the time, about silent Hitchcock in the UK, but alongside these must be put the dramatic masterpieces coming out of Scandinavia. A film-maker like Victor Sjöström from Sweden made remarkable use of landscape and setting, and in Körkarlen / The Phantom Carriage (1921) one of the great ‘bottle or bible’ narratives, silent or sound; Carl Dreyer from Denmark was represented by his Prästänkan / Parson’s Widow (1921), a delicious comedy that turns powerfully poignant by the end. But there were other film-makers as well. I especially liked Walter Fürst’s Troll-Elgen/The Ghost Elk (Norway 1927). One hopes that further opportunity can be given to showing these Scandinavian films, since their reputation is only going to grow.
I do not quite know why but being in Italy always prompts in me bizarre reflections, so I must conclude with them:
item 1: why should the grand Hotel Villa Ottoboni accompany its breakfasts, held in a grand breakfast room, with relentless europop? The mighty are fallen.
Item 2: I need a decent bowl of decent muesli to set me up for the day. In this same hotel, the best cereal they could offer was coco-pops – but fear not, it was labelled brazenly as ‘muesli’. In the country that produced the two greatest writers on the gap between the appearance of power and the reality of power, namely the Roman historian Tacitus and the Renaissance thinker Machiavelli, what you read is not what you get.
Item 3: from the outside and in the news Italy appears to be a single unified country, but the reality is that it is fissiparous. I spotted two sets of graffiti on motorway bridges: ‘Basta Italia, semi Veneti / Italy go to hell, we are Venetians,’ and then later ‘Basta Roma, basta tasse / Rome go to hell, we’ve had enough of taxes.’ Despite these sentiments, Italy is still one country, so perhaps the solution to this problem is to conclude that while Italy’s appearance is of a divided country, in reality the country is unified by its dislike of central authority.
‘The Call of the Heart – John M Stahl and Hollywood Melodrama’ is published by John Libbey Publishing (see http://www.johnlibbey.com). It is distributed by Indiana UP, and is available on Amazon. It covers all his films and I have contributed the essay on Stahl’s The Keys of the Kingdom (1944).