1934 was the first year of relative political freedom in the USSR and, consequently, a year of perfect harmony in Soviet film history. After a series of crises filmmakers seemed to have finally obtained a balance between high artistic standards, the box office and the authorities’ demands. The year was marked by an remarkable success of Chapayev – praised by Eisenstein, watched by Stalin 38 times, and still loved in Russia today. Filmmakers, from veteran Yakov Protazanov to the relatively unknown Mark Donskoi, got a second wind – experimenting with sound effects and music (among those who wrote for cinema in 1934 were Prokofiev and Shostakovich), exploring new genres, such as political satire and stylized historical comedy, setting new standards in camerawork. Even silent cinema gained a new life, enriched by the acting and editing techniques of the sound film. Decades later Grigori Kozintsev, who, together with Leonid Trauberg, directed one of his best pictures that year, The Youth of Maxim, would call this period “Second Utopia” (the first one being the post-revolutionary decade). This time the hopes were shortlived: The Great Terror started in 1936.
At the end of the Pacific War, cinema returns to life in mainland China and Hong Kong. We see the return of quality films comparable with those made by progressive film makers in the 1930s. Like ten years before, these films focus mainly on contemporary subjects and develop a sort of neorealism (much like the Italians after the war) which denounces the most crying injustices of the time and criticizes the darker aspects of society. At the same time, they never try to give lessons and excel at comedy, with sometimes a bitter undertone, as it is the case in Phoney Phoenixes starring Li Lihua and Shi Hui, probably the most successful film of this selection and Spoiling the Wedding Day. The other films offer a diversified panorama of the period: Along the Sungari River gives a unique and beautiful glimpse of the happiness of ordinary people in a small village before the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. The other films come from two companies of Shanghai: the Kunlun of Xia Yunhu and the Wenhua of Wu Xingzai which produced great classics like Spring in a Small Town, Lights of Ten Thousand Homes, The Winter of Three Hairs and This Whole Life of Mine. Princess Iron Fan, the first feature-length animation film of China (and Asia), is a film rarely seen. It was made after the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in 1937, at the time of the “Orphan Island”, when Chinese cinema could still survive freely and make valuable films in the haven of the French and English concessions.
For eleven consecutive editions, this programme has attempted to present films that were, in different degrees, at the margins of the mainstream market; filmmakers who have expressed a unique point of view and found a personal language, relevant to their latitudes of the world. Several films supported and restored by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project will premiere at Il Cinema Ritrovato this year, along with restorations from several other institutions who are joining forces to make sure that these masterpieces find their way back to the big screen. Although geographically distant, the regions explored this year have been cinematographically and ideologically close from the late 1960s onwards, when filmmakers in Africa began to make their voices heard and auteurs in Latin America started to theorize a militant cinema of decolonization. Many films from these vast regions were able to turn intimate stories and individual memory into loud collective statements (“the people of my arteries, the arteries of the people to which I belong” said Egyptian master Youssef Chahine). We will walk the streets of Colobane in Senegal, Burkina Faso, among Mexican and Algerian revolutionaries, streets boys from São Paulo, Guaraní Indians in the yerba mate plantations.
Yılmaz Güney first established a strong relationship with his audience as an actor in the 1960s, after appearing in around 100 films. He was adored by millions who lovingly called him “the Ugly King,” shattering the prevailing image of the pretty faced star. He moved on to write and direct his own films that reflected the realities of his people. This was no easy feat, as he would spend most of his productive years behind bars. Nevertheless, Güney managed to put his signature on world cinema with the films he directed from his prison cell by sending out instructions to his collaborators. Defying the established conventions of popular cinema that had made him a star, Güney’s own films focused on the common man’s struggles for existence in an unjust world. Under the double pressures of morality and poverty, his anti-heroes would often cling to deceiving hopes before slowly sliding into despair. The result was a powerful portrait of the developing world.
A pioneering filmmaker who worked between Italy and France as well as in Egypt, New Guinea and Russia, Marcello Pagliero and his films were open to multiple influences. He belonged to a network of intellectuals and artists in Italy and in France, and was very close with Roberto Rossellini, who directed him in Roma città aperta, De Sica, Flaiano, Amidei, Levi, Sartre, Queneau, Genet, Astruc, Doniol-Valcroze… Pagliero was an unpredictable director and created singular films in Italy such as Roma città libera and Vestire gli ignudi as well as giving French cinema two movies with an approach combining neorealism, poetic realism and existentialism: Un homme marche dans la ville and Les Amants de Brasmort. Praised by André Bazin, these two works alone justify his reputation, but Pagliero’s filmography also includes other hidden gems made in both Italy and France.
Cécile Decugis (1930 – 2017) worked in film for nearly sixty years. She started out as an editing intern for Max Ophuls, beginning a career that spanned from the era of 35 mm with optical sound and splicing with film cement to the digital age. She was one of the original editors of Nouvelle Vague cinema: A bout de souffle, Tirez sur le pianiste – a project interrupted by her arrest in connection with the Algerian FLN, for which she spent two years in prison –, nine films for Rohmer between 1969 and 1984. She was also an instructor at Femis, where she taught students how to break the rules. Her work as a director, however, is hardly known, and two programmes will focus on her films with widely varying shorts – starting with La Distribution de pain (Réfugiés algériens en Tunisie), brutal testimony of life on the border between Algeria and Tunisia in 1957 – along with moral tales from a feminine perspective, stories and film essays.
Programme curated by Garance Decugis and Bernard Eisenschitz