David Bordwell: The Eternal Front-Row Cinephile

One of Il Cinema Ritrovato’s guardian angels has left us. David Bordwell, film historian, teacher, and writer, passed away on February 29, leaving us with a legacy suffused with illumination, intellectual sobriety, precision, and a scientific approach to film that never lacked passion and conviction.

His books are the standard texts on film history, film style, and film criticism all over the world. They have been translated into numerous languages, from Persian to Chinese, from Greek to Hungarian and Italian, leaving their mark in every classroom that cinema was ever taught, in the quiet moment of any cinephile who delved deeper into the brilliance of this art form.

Since 2005, David and his partner Kristin Thompson attended the festival year after year. They were easy to spot: always in the queue, in the front row, smiling, busily chatting with colleagues. Whenever we ran into David Bordwell, we knew the festival had started proper.

He was like a beacon. Jubilant with a boy-scout spirit of discovery. Attired in his summer shorts and trainers, he commented equally brilliantly on the films from the 1910s as the latest Hollywood blockbusters. He moved swiftly and open-mindedly from one to the other, giving the sense that the it is just the essence of cinema that matters.

David’s devices of exploration, aside from his mind – open, bright, and large – were a pen and notebook. Each screening was an adventure to him, translated into words and later into extensive, all-illustrated insights that he and Kristin published on their revered and most-consulted blog. One of the pleasures of doing Il Cinema Ritrovato was reading his notes that were loaded with knowledge, sharp observations, and humour.

“We scarcely have time to sleep, let alone blog,” he wrote in 2010, busy going from one cinema to another. Four years later, the festival had drastically expanded, so David made it clear that “I tell you, it’s hard to keep up, running on Ritrovato time.” And in 2019 he concluded, “Yes, Cinema Ritrovato is on steroids this year.”

It breaks our heart that the eternal front-row man who sat in the empty, half-ruined Modernissimo in 2018 won’t be in Bologna this year to enjoy the restored theater. His own job, however, was restoring film history, in clear and profound words. There’ll be traces of him in every film we screen that provokes new ideas, every queue that invites to a heated debate about the merits of 1920s Scandinavian films, every panel discussion that removes the myth and leaves us with the bold, beautiful essence of cinema.

Il Cinema Ritrovato directorial team


David Bordwell at Il Cinema Ritrovato Festival, 2010