Monday, 24 July 2017

A train runs through it… Rails (1928) with Stephen Horne, BFI

"Cinema is the strongest weapon,” tweeted* Benito Mussolini when laying the cornerstone for Rome’s Cinecittà studios in 1936…. Mario Camerini apparently knew it but very rarely showed it during the years of Il Duce’s rule with Rails (Rotaie) (1928) being an exception by all accounts.

This film was being shown as part of the BFI’s new strand of Sunday silents and they are to be commended for screening this relatively-obscure gem with so many turning out to watch a film that, as Bryony Dixon implied in her introduction, we never knew we wanted to.  But Rails is an impressive film full of late silent invention, rapid cuts, camera mobility, Germanic shadows, Russian montage and plenty of Italian emotion; a film you really feel your way through.

Käthe von Nagy
Stephen Horne’s accompaniment ran, as you would expect, very much on time… highly appropriate for a film of this era (sorry) and not surprising given that he was awarded a prize at the Bonn Silent Film Festival for the score. Using his unique armoury of piano, accordion, flute and percussion he took the audience in hand for Rails’ emotionally intense twists and turns hitting several action points precisely on the nail. But this music is largely improvised and it’s that in-the-moment fragility which makes it so compelling the player is watching the film with the audience and interacting with both at the same time.

From the start, you are immersed straight into the action with this film as we join a young couple driven to desperation and planning an overnight stay at a dingy hotel they cannot afford but will never have to pay for.

Maurizio D'Ancora aka Rodolfo Gucci - later he would devote himself to fashion
Käthe von Nagy plays the woman, La ragazza – a waitress - and Maurizio D'Ancora her lover Giorgio – according to IMDB, although he’s not named in the film. Giorgio has messed up in unspecified ways and has earned the distrust of his potential in-laws who see him as incapable of making a living. Rejected by family and at sea in the forced economic disruption of the time, the two have nowhere to go. Giorgio drops a lethal pill into a glass and they wait for the drug to dissolve…

Then, as sharply as a twist of fate in a Paul Auster novel, reality takes a turn as a steam train blasts past the hotel window, far closer than they expected, and rattles the glass smashing it to the floor. It’s the shock they needed and hand-in-hand they creep out of the hotel and head off into the night with nothing but the revulsion of a narrow escape to propel them forward.

The train and the glass
They make their way to the station and, as she almost faints, head  to the buffet for drink. This opening segment is so intimate and Camerini’s lense moves close in and around the couple using von Nagy’s extraordinary expressiveness to do the work of a dozen intertitles. You feel in the story with them and that intimacy, reinforced so elegantly by Stephen’s playing, carries you through the picture. If you don’t care for this couple then you probably need to check your heart.

A man in a hurry drops his rather fat wallet and Giorgio picks it up and follows too late (by measures on purpose...) to hand it back as its owner disappears on an accelerating train. It’s full of money, they have a chance and they can go anywhere now; they can escape.

Giorgio gets them tickets on a sleeper and they head south in comfort, mistaken for a honeymoon couple in the dining car by fellow travellers. A weasely man with a Miles Mander moustache clocks the girl… not the kind of attention you want to attract.

A jump – there are several cuts that suggest missing material – and we see the man, Jacques Mercier (Daniele Crespi) looking out to watch a motorboat race from the balcony of a plush Mediterranean hotel. The couple are also staying here and soon Giorgio is playing cards with Mercier’s group and the weasel is thinking of ways to have his evil way with his other half…

Oppressed by the city, the couple are equally out of their depth amongst the vicious bourgeoise of the Amalfi coast. She shops and he gambles… and Mercier waits for his moment. It’s only a matter of time before things go awry.

Oh the places you can go to by train!
Rails tiptoes around the strictures of Italian governmental controls and Camerini manages to mix positive messaging about industrialisation with an examination of the dislocation it was causing. From what we have the propaganda is sparing inserted and the meat of the film remains the couple and their search to find a place to love in a society which, unsurprisingly, is neither urban poverty nor seaside opulence, just pro-activity and honest endeavours.

All in all a real treat and I look forward to more Sunday silent surprises on the Southbank.

 *Or he would have if Twitter had been invented.

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