3 x 3 Bologna
Il Cinema Ritrovato 2023
Three Il Cinema Ritrovato visitors discuss three films that they saw at this year’s festival and which stayed in their memories.
1. Steven Jacobs
Bandits of Orgosolo (Vittorio de Seta, 1961)
As always, Il Cinema Ritrovato offered multiple opportunities to (re)discover well-known and lesser-known works from Italian film history: this year I saw Anton Giulio Bragaglia’s Thaïs (1917), Luigi Zampa’s The City Stands Trial (1952), Pietro Germi’s The Railroad Man (1956) and Claudio Gora’s La contessa azzurra (1960), among others. The most beautiful discovery, however, I found in the Ritrovati e restaurati section, a recurring part of the festival that in this edition comprised almost ninety films, including the breathtakingly beautiful Bandits of Orgosolo (1961), the first narrative feature film by Vittorio De Seta, who also wrote the screenplay (together with Vera Gherarducci), operated the camera (together with Luciano Tovoli) and produced the film (for Titanus).
The film tells the story of a Sardinian shepherd who is wrongly accused of a crime and flees, only to be forced to commit crimes himself. His flight is set in the mountains of Barbagia, a dry, desolate and silent landscape where taciturn shepherds live by their own archaic laws in a culture that wants to remain detached from the modern world. In this film, De Seta manages to add a new dimension to neorealism, which had always focused on how characters situate themselves in their environment. Bandits of Orgosolo contains unmistakable echoes of the way in which various neorealist masterpieces present the natural landscape with its sublime grandeur and incomprehensible whims as a protagonist – think of the sea in Luchino Visonti’s La Terra Trema (1948) or the volcanic island in Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli (1950). De Seta himself had played on this theme before in the documentary short films he had shot in southern Italy, such as Islands of Fire (1954), Surfarara (1955) or Sea Countrymen (1955). Besides, De Seta had also previously explored the mountainous and inhospitable inland of Sardinia in Orgosolo’s Shepherds (1958) and A Day in Barbagia (1958).
His documentary eye for the atmospheric transformations, changing light conditions and inscrutable animals in the landscape is combined with the dramatic potential of the mountainous landscape in masterful shot compositions that set the characters against the rugged horizon in various ways. In this sense, Bandits of Orgosolo demonstrates an unmistakable affinity with other films from the same period in which characters on the run seem to merge with the landscape entirely, such as Renato Castellani’s The Brigand (1961) and Francesco Rosi’s Salvatore Giuliano (1962). De Seta manages to endow his landscapes with the tragic power and symbolic tension of classic American westerns, the Sardinian inland being a last frontier, whereby masterful long shots of endless horizons and deep gorges alternate with intriguing close-ups of the protagonist (Michele Cossu), whose face exudes the same ruggedness, taciturnity and gravitas as the Sardinian mountain landscape.
I, the Jury (Harry Essex, 1953)
Il Cinema Ritrovato invariably offers the opportunity to admire all kinds of film formats in full splendour. Once again, films from the early days of film history were screened using carbon arc projectors, and the festival included a programme entitled Great Small Gauges containing various films on 8, 9.5 and 16mm. This year, the Ritrovati e restaurati section also offered the opportunity to watch 3D films from the mid-1950s, such as Revenge of the Creature (Jack Arnold, 1955) and I, the Jury (Harry Essex, 1953).
I, the Jury was directed by Harry Essex, who is best known as a screenwriter for sci-fi/horror films such as It Came from Outer Space (Jack Arnold, 1953) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (Jack Arnold, 1954) but also for a couple of interesting noir thrillers such as Desperate (Anthony Mann, 1947), Kansas City Confidential(Phil Karlson, 1952) and The Las Vegas Story (Robert Stevenson, 1952). I, the Jury is a film along these lines. The screenplay, written by Essex himself, is based on Mickey Spillane’s 1947 noir crime thriller of the same name and is the first time the archetypal private eye Mike Hammer (Biff Eliot) appears as the main character. Searching for the murderer of a friend and war comrade, Hammer becomes entangled in a convoluted plot in which he is used as bait by the police. The film noir clichés are abundant: wisecracking crooks and reporters, double-crossing dames, ex-drug addicts, a corrupt rich art collector, a doctor who practices psychoanalysis, a dance school that turns out to be a brothel, a whole series of false identities and a stack of fatalities. The ramshackle plot is accompanied by not particularly subtle acting, ludicrous dialogue and a voice-over heavily underscored by Franz Waxman, which already seems to be a parody of itself.
For all that, I, the Jury (in a crystal-clear DCP in Bologna) guarantees an unforgettable cinematic experience, entirely due to the 3D process (with stereophonic sound, by the way) which was entrusted here to grandmaster John Alton, one of the all-time great cinematographers of the classic Hollywood era. Alton not only emerged as one of the masters of Technicolor photography (for Vincente Minnelli, among others), he can also be described as one of the inventors of the visual look of film noir (for films by Anthony Mann and Joseph H. Lewis, among others). I, the Jury deploys 3D technology to support the typical visual language of film noir and evoke a world of dark and claustrophobic interiors. The film’s opening sequence speaks volumes: a close-up of a gunshot, right into the spectator’s eye, is followed by a shot in which the victim crawls floundering towards the camera and we see a chair with a prosthetic arm in the foreground. However, Essex and Alton only occasionally deploy 3D technology to overwhelm the spectator frontally. In most shots, we are shown interiors where the cameras were set at a forty-five-degree angle and the characters and furniture are deployed in a beautiful mise-en-scène that masterfully plays on depth.
“Illustrated Records” (Germaine Dulac, 1930)
This year’s Ritrovati e restaurati section also featured an intriguing multimedia experiment from the year the French film industry transitioned to sound film. In 1930, the French filmmaker Germaine Dulac made six short films that provide a kind of visual accompaniment to gramophone records of popular songs by Reynaldo Hahn and others, performed by singers such as Fréhel and Damia. The idea was for the public to buy the records when the films were released in theatres. Three of these films – Celles qui s’en font (1930), Ceux qui ne s’en font pas (1930) and Un peu de rêve sur le faubourg (1930) – were screened at the festival while the music was played from the original records. Dulac occasionally uses lip-synching (never perfect, of course), but most of the films consist of visual impressions that evoke the atmosphere of the songs. In this sense, Dulac created an early precursor to the later music videos accompanying and commercialising pop songs. The introductory titles, for example, present Celles qui s’en font (1930) as an “impression cinégraphique de Germaine Dulac / mimées par Lilian Constantini / en écoutant deux disques: Toute seule, À la dérive”.
Dulac had previously experimented with resonances between music and (silent) film: Record 957 (1928) forms a kind of “visual music” based on two Chopin preludes. A clear example of the cinéma pur of the French avant-garde, Record 957 consists of shots of rotating gramophone records reflecting light and multiple exposures of radiant light effects and shots of a pianist’s hands, mechanical devices and natural landscapes.
In the 1930s “music films”, the preference for impressionistic light effects remains but the focus shifts towards a social landscape. Even though a few actors (notably Lilian Constantini and George Vallée) are used to construct a kind of micro-narrative – a girl tries to escape the wary eye of her controlling mother, the wanderings of a lonely woman, a woman who chooses death by drowning after being cheated on by her lover, et cetera – Dulac focuses on the sketching of colourful situations. Remarkable about these “illustrated records” is the fact that they were shot on location and take maximum advantage of the urban and suburban context. Dulac associates the songs with everyday surroundings, common folks and elements from the tradition of the “urban picturesque”, such as the figure of the apache. The landscape evoked consists, on the one hand, of common neighbourhoods – the images of children playing in the street evoke Helen Levitt’s and James Agee’s In the Street (1948) – and, on the other hand, of the terrain vague of the urban fringe, the dreary world of La zone, cherished in those same years by surrealists, documentary filmmakers and photographers alike.
2. Jonathan Mackris
Nothing but a Man (Michael Roemer, 1964)
There is so much screened each year at Il Cinema Ritrovato that it’s easy to lose track of just how much there is to watch on a given day. Officially, there were seventeen programs in this year’s festival, yet nestled within these programs were a number of minor “sub-series” dedicated to filmmakers including Joe Dante, Jonathan Nossiter (both in attendance) and, notably, the American independent director Michael Roemer, whose work found some renewed notoriety last year when a restoration of his 1984 television film Vengeance is Mine drew attention in the United States. Vengeance is Mine was not included in this year’s tribute, but the tribute did include two short films by Roemer along with restorations of his two best known features, courtesy of The Film Desk: The Plot Against Harry (filmed in 1969 and unreleased until 1989) and his debut feature, Nothing But a Man (1964).
Plenty might be said about what these two features have in common, and both will undoubtedly benefit from the new life offered to them in restoration. If I prefer Nothing But a Man, it’s because of the force it assigns to melodrama as a mode of expression. The success of a melodrama always depends on its ability to revive in us a belief in destiny. It’s the only remaining context where tautology is still invited to reign: a woman is a woman; a man is what he is. There is a remarkable scene in Mizoguchi’s Chikamatsu monogatari between the hero Mohei and the villain Sukeyemon, where the latter curls his body like a snake around the table where the other is working. Mizoguchi, one of the great melodramatists, knew that the best way for an audience to understand the ideas of a character is to make them tangible by putting them into movement through an action. If there’s something in Nothing But a Man that reminds me of Mizoguchi, it’s that Roemer follows his example. The opening of the film is astonishing because, in just a matter of shots, we understand everything about the characters who work on the train with the film’s protagonist, Duff Anderson (Ivan Dixon), that we could ever need to know. We know them immediately, from the way their head leans, the way they play cards, the way they drink from a glass.
But what of Dixon’s character if he is, as the title suggests, nothing but a man? It was only after watching Roemer’s remarkable short film Cortile Cascino (1962), co-directed with Robert M. Young, that I came to fully appreciate how much his art depends on montage. In fact, it’s just as true of Nothing But a Man but for opposite reasons. (I must note here in passing that the editor of the film, Peter Gessner, is later known as one of the major figures of New York Newsreel for films like FALN (1965), co-directed with Robert Kramer, andFinally Got the News (1970), about the United Auto Workers.) As a poetic device, the function of montage in Cortile Cascino is simile: the death of an impoverished child of a slum is like the death of animals slaughtered for consumption, and society looks at each with a mutual apathy. The power of montage in his feature film is different – it’s the power of the negative, of contrast. Thus, the gravitas which Roemer assigns to the reverse shot, as if crossing out every man Dixon sees with an X. He won’t be a preacher like his wife’s father; he won’t be a deadbeat like his own father; he won’t be a playboy like his coworkers on the train, or a coward like his coworkers at the factory. What sort of man will he be, if not any of these? “Not nothing,” the film replies. “Anything but.”
Al-makhdu’un [The Dupes] (Tefwik Saleh, 1972)
It’s curious that, when adapting a work of literature, many filmmakers have a tendency to add material when their real task is to distill. If we judge Al-makhdu’un simply by what its director Tefwik Saleh adds to the source material, the famous novella Men in the Sun (1962) by the Palestinian activist Ghassan Kanafani, it wouldn’t be of the same interest. These inventions do little to alter our understanding of the original text. We know enough about the characters as it is, and, contrary to the most popular myths of liberal humanism, the cruelty of the tragedy that befalls them is not improved the more we know about them. Kanafani remains Palestine’s greatest author. He was murdered by Mossad agents in 1972, the same year Saleh made this film, which remains probably the best known – if not simply the best – adaptation of his work. One of Kanafani’s greatest talents as a stylist is his ability to equate in prose the fate of objects and men, a skill that finds him in company with Poe and Kafka. The most violent aspect to his novella is the simplicity to the comparison it makes between water and men, each equally eligible as cargo to be transported. To that end, his work needs no help here where characters are concerned.
Rather, it is other things – actually hot sun, the shadow that crosses over a man lying dehydrated in the sand, the sweat that rolls off his cheek – that elevate Saleh’s film from mere adaptation to an independently brilliant work. It’s what he does with time that draws our attention the most. Both novella and film build toward the final act, in which three men are smuggled across the border into Kuwait. The scene is no doubt of equal importance to the novel and the film, but the traits of the latter allow it to magnify the dread of this sequence. The driver promises his stop at the border will take no more than seven minutes. He does not expect that the border agent will refuse to sign his papers properly, teasing him over some gossip about a night spent with a club dancer. The camera is parked outside the black water tank. We are never shown what’s happening inside of the tank, but we know, as we wait for the driver to return, that we are watching men die. Nothing we gain from the expanded characterization compares to the simplicity of their ending, the force of which requires no further explanation.
Al-makhdu’un was one of two Syrian productions – the other, Muhammad Mala’s Alham al-Medina [Dreams of the City] (1984), which screened on what may have been the most beautiful print of the entire festival – at this year’s edition of Il Cinema Ritrovato, both part of the annual Cinemalibero program of world cinema curated by the festival director Cecilia Cenciarelli. Launched in 2007 in collaboration with the World Cinema Foundation, to which Al-makhdu’un belongs, the series has since become the primary home for Third World cinema at the festival, which this year included two additional Arab films, the new restoration of Heiny Srour’s Layla wa zi’ab [Leila and the Wolves] (1984) and Jocelyn Saab’s Les femmes palestiniennes (1974).
Kawanakajima kassen [The Battle of Kawanakajima] (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1941)
Jean-Marie Straub named Chaplin the greatest editor because he knew when not to cut. In the same vein, for a director like Teinosuke Kinugasa, whose essence is fundamentally rhythm-as-theme, it’s crucial to know when to pause (and why to do so), when to draw out certain notes and to rely on stillness as much as motion. Hence the long prologue to the battle, comprising almost the entire film: Kinugasa spends so much time on the preparation for the battle, which in turn is reduced to something flimsy and without glory. The more poetic moments remind us of his early career in the twenties and the avant-garde work by Ivens, Kirsanoff, and others that some of his films were in dialogue with – namely the independently-produced Kurutta ippêji [A Page of Madness] (1926) and Jûjiro [Crossroads] (1928). Of all the Japanese directors of his era, Kinugasa is perhaps the one who profits most from montage. Kawanakajima kassen is nearly the opposite of his most famous film, Jigokumon [Gate of Hell] (1952), for which he won the Palme d’Or, but because of this difference they are like complimentary expressions of the theme of his career, which between them remains the same: entropy, whether political, psychological, or cosmological.
The battle of Kawanakajima is one of the best known and bloodiest battles in Japanese history, and the production of this film in the early 1940s coincides with rise in militarism encouraged by the Japanese entry into the second World War. In the hands of another director, it is easy to imagine this film emphasizing certain characters in one way or another – generals, for example, who plot the battles, or the men, courageous or maybe fearful, who are made to fight them. These characters may appear in Kinugasa’s film, but they’re not memorable for what they do. Nothing in Kawanakajima kassen demonstrates a belief in the value of the actions of men. Not that it does not believe in men, but it does not make them masters of their destiny. They are fitted instead into a project bigger than themselves, but equally one that gives them a role to play and binds them to that place.
Mizoguchi is a director of hard lines, columns, walls, and corners. Kinugasa is a director of sheets and breezes. Sometimes we admire a breeze in Ozu, and it’s often for the same reasons we admire them in Kinugasa: the world is in motion, it’s constantly changing (Hitori musuko [The Only Son], 1936). For both of them, such a shot is sutured to an ethical basis common to many of the great liberal filmmakers in Japan and elsewhere. But there is no nature in Ozu, a fact that sometimes surprises given the way he’s spoken about. Like Dostoyevsky, part of what makes him modern is that he told stories of city life at a time when it remained the minority milieu in his country. And in any case, Kinugasa is closer to Murnau, with whom he shares a refusal to reduce nature to a metaphor. (The film historian Alexander Jacoby, who co-curated this year’s program dedicated to Kinugasa with Johan Nordström, claims the director viewed the latter’s Der letzte Mann (1924) upwards of four times when making Kurutta ippêji.) Nature may be expressive in his films, but what happens to it is always at the same time very literal. The world is spoiled because we spoil it.
3. Gerard-Jan Claes
Katharina, die Letzte (Hermann Kosterlitz/Henry Koster, 1936)
Last year at Ritrovato, the programme The Last Laugh presented ten German musical comedies from the period 1930-1932. Curated by Lukas Foerster, these Weimar films, with their playful yet sharp tone, showed a glimpse of what an alternative path for German (film) history could have meant, just before Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. Continuing last year’s programme, Foerster again brought a number of comedies to Bologna under the title The Very Last Laugh. The common thread: five films made between 1934 and 1936 by German, often Jewish, filmmakers exiled in Austria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Outside Germany, these exiles sought to provide a cinematic counterweight to the emerging Nazi propaganda.
One of the highlights in this selection was Katharina, die Letzte by Henry Koster, who was then still called Hermann Kosterlitz. Koster left Germany in 1933 and, after a brief stay in France, went on to make three films in Hungary for Joe Pasternak, who represented Universal in Europe. Katharina die Letzte, their latest European production, presents a Cinderella-like story in which Hans von Gerstikow, a conceited upper-class young man, strains every nerve to marry Sybill Braun, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. Her father resists, however, and forbids Hans from having any further contact with his daughter. He also orders his servants not to let Hans in under any circumstances. Only the simple kitchen maid Katharina is unaware of this order. Hans quite brazenly refuses to give up, desperate to see the woman he loves. He changes costumes with his driver and declares his love for Katharina as “a man of the people”. The girl is deceived easily and falls for his charms. Hans again has his foot in the door at Braun’s house. Katharina, for her part, can hardly believe her own amorous happiness and does everything in her power to serve her lover.
In all respects, Katharina is “the last one”: illiterate (she cannot read her so-called lover’s letters), from the country (she is saving for a cow), naïve (at no point does she see through Hans’s mean tricks), clumsy (with grubby braids and on clogs she shuffles through the kitchen) and at the bottom of the social scale (among the servants, she represents the lowest caste – “Katharina? Sie zählt nicht mit!” [“Katharina? She doesn’t count!”]). No one sees her. As expected, Katharina’s kind-heartedness will eventually prove irresistible to the stuck-up Hans.
Katharina’s mise-en-scène is solid, but Franciska Gaal is the true star of the film. Despite the predictable course, the Hungarian actress enchants the viewer. From the 1920s onward, Gaal was groomed for cabaret and the theatre stage by Pasternak, with sporadic excursions to silent film. Her career as a film actress did not really take off until the beginning of sound film. Katharina die Letzte was the last of three films Gaal made with the trio Kosterlitz, Pasternak and screenwriter Felix Joachimson. Being Jewish, she would eventually leave Europe in 1937 and emigrate to Hollywood. Katharina would be remade there in 1938 as The Girl Downstairs, with Gaal in the same role and direction by Norman Taurog.
Katharina’s recognisability is partly what is at stake in the film. Through clichés, songs and popular ideas about romance and love, the story is stripped of its seriousness. “Du passt so gut zu mir, wie Zucker zum Kaffee”, we hear in a slick nightclub. Koster, a great admirer of Ernst Lubitsch, tells a story about the make-believe world of the upper class, with its masquerades and social codes. In that world, love remains “the best, most insidious, most effective instrument of social oppression”, as Fassbinder noted. Through inventive reversals, Katharina makes fun of upper-class behaviour and regulations, where money and stupidity seem proportional. Katharinapresents a sampling of foolishness, in which elitist idiocy, held together by ridiculous customs and codes, is qualitatively different from the naïve ignorance of the poor kitchen maid. The gullibility of excellencies, diplomats and industrialists emphasises the arbitrariness of their social position, which, judging by their intelligence, does not really seem to have come about by their efforts. Conversely, Gaal plays the idiote savante who takes everything at face value, believing every word, incapable of lies or pretence. As Foerster writes in the catalogue, it is “this trust in the world and its surface appearances, that makes her the centre of every intrigue”. It turns Katharina’s perception of Hans’s deception into the sad discovery of the whole world’s falsity. The spectator, who sees through all tricks and does recognise the masquerade, is of course complicit. The happy ending is bittersweet. Is the social crossing, the rich Hans with the poor Katharina, ultimately believable?
Lady Windermere’s Fan (Ernst Lubitsch, 1925)
As usual, films were screened under a starry sky in Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore every evening for a large audience of film lovers. The screening of the MoMA restoration of Ernst Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fanunfortunately had to move indoors because of the rain, but that did not detract from the film’s splendour. Lubitsch’s sense of mise-en-scène, framing and visual narration immediately makes it clear why he is in a category of his own and why Lady Windermere’s Fan can be considered a pinnacle of silent film. His cinematic ingenuity is especially moving. As a spectator, you witness someone inventing cinema before your eyes, valuing each cinematic element, paying attention to framing, decoupage and montage (Lubitsch actually did the montage himself here).
This novelty becomes all the more apparent when you realise what the film’s source material is. Lady Windermere’s Fan is based on Oscar Wilde’s theatre play of the same name, but it far from shows. Lubitsch eliminated the famous epigrams and adapted the play into a cinematic game of apparitions and disappearances, emphasising the masquerade that is shaped through language, gestures and glances. This deliberate showing and not showing, which the viewer is imbued with and enjoys, makes Lubitsch’s cinema a reflective and modern art through and through. Lubitsch is one of the first filmmakers to clearly realise that cinema is the art of the surface, of forms, and not of what is supposedly hidden behind those appearances. There is no quest for intentions; Lubitsch has an aversion to naturalist directness. Just as, according to Ivana Novak and Jela Krečič, language in Lubitsch should not be understood as a medium for expressing inner psychological states, cinematic representation should not be considered a direct expression of what it shows. Language, and by extension film and all art, embraces both its content and its speakers/spectators. Truth is not found in any hidden intention but solely and exclusively in the way things appear to us. This at once offers us the genesis of Lubitschian, formal humour, which looks for “similarities, geometric resemblances, abstractions, repetitions and doubles”, according to Novak and Krečič.
Lady Windermere’s Fan is a textbook Lubitsch film. Lady Windermere is a woman from the London beau monde who believes her husband is having an affair. Her husband, however, tries to hide from her that her late mother, Mrs Erlynne, is still alive. Fearing that his wife will be unable to handle that truth, and seeing a pile of bills on Mrs Erlynne’s desk, Lord Windermere gives her a cheque. Lady Windermere, for her part, is busy rejecting the advances of Lord Darlington, who is trying to exploit his knowledge of Lord Windermere’s alleged affair. So nothing is what it seems. The end of the film, with Lady Windermere’s fan in a leading role, does not reveal the truth after all. For the sake of peace and quiet, it is better to perpetuate the lie.
In Lubitsch’s hands, this game of chess primarily becomes a game of image sizes – a clever alternation of close-ups of hands and objects with wider frames that well reflect the shifting relationships between the characters – and cinematic inventions – for example, Mrs Erlynne’s entry into the society is depicted by ingeniously using binoculars and points of views. This is an unmistakably documentary element: observation, and the pleasure of watching, projecting and associating. There is truth in how things appear and are shown, not in how things really are, Lubitsch teaches us. The notion of the frame is important here, as a cutout that isolates characters and objects. The image frame becomes a carefully prepared playing field for the actors, who have a double relationship with their characters. The actors are aware that they are acting and thus perform the acting, cheating themselves in a way.
“Si vous savez filmer des montagnes, de l’eau et du vert, vous saurez filmer des hommes.” [“If you know how to film mountains, water and green, you’ll know how to film people.”] This is how Jean-Luc Godard paraphrased Lubitsch in his Lettre à Freddy Buache (1981). He had been asked to make a film about Lausanne on the occasion of the city’s 500th anniversary. “Ils ont commandé un film sur et ça, c’est un film de. Il n’arrive encore pas à la sur-face, il est encore au fond, au fond des choses.” [“They’ve commissioned a film on, and that is a film of. It hasn’t reached the surface yet, it’s still at the bottom, at the bottom of things.”] Film should start from what we know, from the documentary, which should be examined like a scientist would. “Regarder les choses scientifiquement, retrouver dans ces mouvements tout le rythme, le départ de la fiction.” [“To look at things in a scientific way, to find in these movements all of the rhythm, the start of fiction.”] It is this true sense of formalism, the result of incredible technique and simplicity, from which everything emerges and in which everything can be found, that makes Lubitsch so great.
Gharibeh va meh [The Stranger and the Fog] (Bahram Beyzaie, 1974)
In a remote Iranian village by the sea, a small boat with an unconscious man bobs ashore. Once recovered, the injured Ayat does not remember anything; he does not know who he is or where he came from. Ayat is accepted by the villagers, who suspiciously see omens everywhere. Is this stranger a harbinger of doom? When Ayat begins a romance with Ra’na, a widow whose husband has vanished for some time, the vanished husband’s family reacts suspiciously. The new couple will eventually marry, though, with the village’s blessing. Suddenly, a dozen boats with strange visitors appear on the horizon. They seem to be looking for Ayat, and they attack him and the villagers. In a spectacular fight scene, the strangers eventually lose out.
Bahram Beyzaie’s The Stranger and the Fog, unwatchable for decades, was one of the most remarkable films at Ritrovato this year. The original negatives of the Iranian film were “smuggled” into Bologna last year, and the Ritrovato audience had the honour of being the first to view the restoration. Beyzaie (b 1938), an Iranian playwright and theatre maker, screenwriter, editor, writer and researcher in Persian literature and art, is often considered a pioneer of the Cinema-ye Motafavet, the Iranian New Wave. In 1972, he put himself on the map with Ragbār [Downpour], a film about a simple teacher who arrives in Tehran for a new job. When it was restored by the Cineteca di Bologna in 2011, Martin Scorsese credited the film with “the beauty of an ancient fable”, in which Beyzaie’s background in Persian literature, theatre and poetry is palpable. In his theatre work, too, Beyzaie was inspired by Indo-Iranian mythology and history, often starting from his study of ancient Iranian literature and languages.
The Stranger and the Fog is an epic film in all respects and deviates from the stereotypical image of the Iranian New Wave. No link to Italian neorealism, no staging of everyday life where ordinary citizens survive in a twilight zone between fiction and reality. At first glance, The Stranger looks like a large-scale film adaptation of a well-known myth with great attention to detail when it comes to the sets and costumes. In the introduction to the film, however, co-festival director Ehsan Khoshbakht emphasised that the community's rituals, customs and costumes have been invented and cannot be unequivocally traced to any particular historical context. It makes the world of The Stranger unprecedented and difficult to situate iconographically.
Especially striking is the way Beyzaie has shaped this epic. The story is told chronologically but scattered spatially. Dialogue scenes sometimes take place in different locations, as if the characters are teleported to yet other places but still remain in conversation. It transforms the story into an abstract chronicle, a dream through which you move as a spectator, often quite literally, with a camera constantly in motion. This oneiric, narrative labyrinth is at times, perhaps strangely so, reminiscent of the work of Kira Muratova, more specifically of her film The Long Farewell. Although The Stranger relies less on montage elements such as repetition and sharp cuts, here too we find a mental journey made spatially tangible. You enter a dark labyrinth of alienation and paranoia, where humankind seems at the mercy of an unknowable universe. “In man’s struggle against the universe, bet on the universe,” says Kafka, whose nightmarishly labyrinthine novels loom large when watching The Stranger.
This constant shifting creates disorientation. As a spectator, you look for clues and explanations, but even the suggested symbols, such as the recurring crescent, remain hard to interpret. It turns The Stranger into a slightly frustrating experience. Its mythological features are never fully developed. The film leaves aside whether there is a magical force at work, which makes you think about the relationship between immanence and transcendence. What belongs to our world, what is knowable and explainable? Is there something supernatural, a higher order that is imperceptible and incomprehensible beyond our imagination? The sea represents a symbolic boundary between the two worlds. When, at the end, Ayat leaves again with his boat and crescent, disappearing into the misty horizon, the story seems to go back to square one. Does The Stranger bring a story that repeats itself endlessly, a circular narrative about life and death? The misty sea as the “unknown” that gives and takes? We recognise this repetition in the presence of the numerous mirrors in the film, which seems to indicate endless reduplication.
The film can also be read in a political way. The Stranger presents a classic story of “the stranger” disrupting a community and questioning its social construction, even though the status quo is restored and Ayat’s intrusion does not visibly reshape the order. Afterwards, several critics interpreted the film as an announcement of the Iranian revolution. “I see trouble. Like things were almost to fall apart,” says one of the villagers at one point. So many years later, Beyzaie himself does not seem to rule out that interpretation: “The Stranger, or at least some of its most essential images, came right out of my nightmares. I realised the fear that was tormenting me in Iranian society was now growing even bigger within me. The critics’ reading and interpretation of the film after its premiere at Tehran International Film Festival proved that my fears were right. The Stranger was a warning about an impending danger that people were either oblivious to, or chose to stay ignorant of.”
What to make of The Stranger and the Fog? “It is so easy in foreign lands to become poetic and work with mysteries, which on closer inspection are actually worryingly close to kitsch,” Menno ter Braak wrote in 1935. Poetry arises only by the grace of a clear artistic problem, and only precise knowledge of that problem “can keep a writer from succumbing to the temptations of this atmosphere of poetic travels”. It would be easy to attribute such a poetic fog to The Stranger. Despite the misty plot, the film continues to fascinate, and one catches intriguingly enigmatic flashes of light throughout the film. When Ayat disappears and the film ends, nothing has cleared up. And even though you are left wondering what you’ve just seen exactly, the belief that The Stranger and the Fog goes its own way and that there is more to the mystery remains intact.
Image (1) from Banditi a Orgosolo (Vittorio de Seta, 1961)
Image (2) from I, the Jury (Harry Essex, 1953)
Image (3) from Celles qui s’en font (Germaine Dulac, 1930)
Image (4) from Nothing but a Man (Michael Roemer, 1964)
Image (5) from Al-makhdu’un [The Dupes] (Tefwik Saleh, 1972)
Image (6) from Kawanakajima kassen [The Battle of Kawanakajima] (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1941)
Image (7) from Katharina, die Letzte (Herman Kosterlitz/Henry Koster, 1936)
Image (8) from Lady Windermere’s Fan (Ernst Lubitsch, 1925)
Image (9) from Gharibeh va meh [The Stanger and the Fog] (Bahram Beyzaie, 1974)