Saturday, 25 March 2017

The poet and the painter… Il Fuoco (1916), Lillian Henley and John Sweeney, Kennington Bioscope




One of the great silent Italian divas and the return of the Bioscope Dream Team, Lillian Henley on voice and John Sweeney on keys, this was an evening to savour as we were lost in the infinite gaze of Pina Menichelli and the heat of dangerous passion.

If Borelli was the most expressive overall, Bertini the most naturalistic, then Menichelli is perhaps the most purely cinematic diva with a career born in front of the cameras not on stage and a face meant to be photographed. She’s got cheekbones to burn and commands the audience’s attention as easily as her lover, sneering a wide-angled smile that just radiates operatic haughtiness.

You think it’s funny back there in row five? Maybe it is and maybe she means it to be; this is Fifty Shades of Red in which the lead character knows the extent of her own caricature… nothing phony to see here just a mesmeric talent and a woman who knows how to wear an owl headdress. She is a joy to watch and moves as freely as she expresses: a moth that burns the very flames it's attracted to.

Pina Menichelli
Diva films put the woman at the centre of the story and not necessarily as a tragic adornment. In Il Fuoco (The Fire) it is the leading man, the painter Mario Alberti (Febo Mari) who is subject to the female will and who is not guaranteed a happy ending. Over in the US, Theda Bara was channelling Kipling’s very British idea of a femme fatale as the vamp in A Fool There Was but in Italian film, women were just that bit more sophisticated.

Yes, Pina may stalk her male prey with darting ornithological exaggeration but her little mouse is all too willing to play along as he paints a sunset and she sneaks up behind passing poetic comment as he struggles with his vision. Mario is stricken and yet when he returns to see her again the next evening at the same spot she rudely spurns his attentions before storming off.

Febo Mari
But the poet is merely toying with her prey and has left a note on a bulrush setting out the terms of their ensuing contest in which she will seek him out in his “nest” and he will try to take control of her… He tries ot prepare but she takes him by surprise, scorns him as a mother’s boy and then demonstrates the energy efficiencies of pure passion: he can either love in a mild way like his table oil lamp or be consumed like the flames that erupt when she smashes it.

Naturally he opts for the quick burn and the next thing we know its morning and as she slinks him away, arms and hands intertwined, he leaves a note for his mother: he has gone to find the way.


In the poet’s castle – yes, busting rhymes paid out as big then as now – the artist’s creativity  reaches new heights as he paints his love as she drapes herself on the nearest couch. It’s a passionate work and one that impresses the critics and public alike. Mario is a star of his lady’s making and his painting makes him rich.

But… you cannot dream without awaking can you?

Giovanni Pastrone directs with Caibirian dynamism and there is some gorgeous composition as well dreamy dolly shots as his camera moves around the action.


The film came with Italian titles translated by David Robinson and impeccably read by Lillian Henley accompanied by John Sweeney on piano. I loved what this duo did with TerjeVigen last year and they were no less impressive tonight. Lillian brought musical intonation to the reading, working hand in hand with her fellow pianist: only a silent film musician would know how to pace the words and only another could control their playing so well as to allow the reading to meld with their playing. All the words said and all the notes played in exactly the right order!

There were some huge, romantic chords from John – so much emotional on screen - and Lillian’s modulation was precise, filled with practiced emotional edge: the two were dueting and Pina made three. More please; this stuff should be on prescription!

We watched a superb 35mm print travelled over from Italy as part of a joint venture between the Bioscope and South West Silents – an exciting alliance that promises more riches from European archives.

Amleto Novelli and Pina Menichelli,
Also on the plane was a short film also featuring Pina but in a more conventional romantic comedy, Papà (1915) directed by Nino Oxilia. The film begins with a jaded playboy, Giuseppe Piemontesi, discovering that he has a son out in the country. Looking for purpose in his life, he heads out to meet the young man who turns out to be the not-so-young Amleto Novelli (about 30 at the time, not much younger than his cinematic “dad”).             

The lad has been romancing a local beauty, played by Pina, and disappointing a lovelorn shepherdess (Suzy Prim), well, amidst the lovely scenery, can you guess what is going to happen…?

Cyrus Gabrysch played along to this pastoral aperitif and enhanced its gentle if slightly confusing joy with Lillian making verbal sense of the translated titles.

So, you're my Papa?
First up we broadened our minds with some travelogues from the Cineteca di Bologna DVD Grand Tour italiano. 61 film dei primi anni del ’900 (available direct from Bologna!). There was a sea of faces from 1910, all gobbling up the potential of instant fame from the faces looking back up at them on screen, a novelty that never fades. Then to the skies for some fascinating shots taken from the Brera Observatory in L' Eclisse parziale di sole del 17 aprile 1912 - a partial solar eclipse had been filmed and the mechanism for capturing this event was shown: all this from a time when relativity was barely a twinkle.

Next we joined a group of patiently-posing dignitaries at The Great ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone of the sugar factory in Casalmaggiore (1910) the stone was carefully laid and then the men – and a few women – power posed like so many cigar-chomping frozen peacocks, for the moving camera.

L' Eclisse parziale di sole del 17 aprile 1912
Lest we forget that the Italian sense of humour is amongst the most advanced in the World, a smashing 35mm print of A Shrapnel Duel (1913) was shown: two silly men trying to blow each other in pursuit of a young woman’s hand. Bombs are attached to the daft duellists and they try and hit their opponent’s shell using metal hammers: be careful not to lose your head (and other body parts) in love or war.

Lillian was on piano for these first three, as modulated and expressive with music as with words.

Ben fatto Bioscope!! Stupendo!

Sunday, 19 March 2017

The fault in our Tsars… Mother (1926), Barbican with Stephen Horne and Martin Pyne



“Pudovkin theorised that actors on screen do not really act; it's their context that moves us - something established, through montage, by their relationship to exterior objects.” Jonathan Jones, The Guardian

So, a method driven by process with the director controlling the cinematic context for human reaction by inserting his players into events? That said, this film is crammed full of expressive faces and would be nowhere near as good without the performances, especially the magnificent Vera Baranovskaya: Comrade Pudovkin knew that you can edit all you like but without emotion  it’s just pictures and pyrotechnics.

Vsevolod Pudovkin, as Sergei Eisentsein, looked back to the failed 1905 Revolution to find brutal injustice the helped inspire the change that was to come in 1917 and, by the mid-twenties, was being consolidated. As with any new regime, it was important to remind people how things came to be and, we must remember that this was the early days of the Soviet Union; a time of optimism for many and not the inevitable failure as viewed through the decedent lens of modern cheap-shot historical judgement.

Communication, travel, industry... all in one frame
This new order followed many decades of struggle against brutal Tsarist rule which had finally taken a Great War in which more Russians were deployed than weapons to force a revolution not just of communists but liberals too. After the February 1917 uprising there was a period of uneasy alliance between the various parties before the Bolsheviks assumed control. There then followed years of civil war and foreign interventions as the European order tried to re-assert itself, then final victory, the death of its inspiration and a power struggle won by a man who would grow into a tyrant…

In 1926, it was still the time to make sense of it all and to remember the way Russian lives had been valued by the old regime. Pudovkin’s Mother stands as one of the pre-eminent examples of contextualising propaganda of the time as well as being a superbly crafted piece of cinema in its own right.  


The story was based on Maxim Gorky’s 1906 novel The Mother and bears similarities to the Bloody Sunday attrocities in which the imperial guard were ordered to open fire on a demonstration in St Petersberg in January 1905. That event led to long-term consequences yet this film is is not a simplistic take on revolutionary innocence versus black-hearted oppression but a tragic story of a nation undermined by a careless, fatal, malaise.

Vera Baranovskaya plays the Mother and she is married to an abusive alcoholic husband Vlasov (Aleksandr Chistyakov), a man who would steal even the family iron if it would get him another vodka. He lashes out at his wife and slaps down their son, Pavel (Nikolai Batalov) as he comes to her aid.

Aleksandr Chistyakov
He is a sad sack of a man who has been defeated by life and in the local tavern he’s an easy mark for a group of men looking for a patsy to help them break an impending strike. The problem is that Pavel is one of the group organising the action. He meets a girl, Anna (Anna Zemtsova) who hands him a package, he goes home and hides it disturbing his sleeping mother just enough for her to see what he is doing.

Come the day of the strike, Pavel and his group are ambushed at the gates of the factory and badly beaten. Pavel and a pal are chased  into the tavern, yet whilst Pabvel makes good his escape his mate is grabbed by the inn-keeper. In the melee his gun is fired and Vlasov is shot dead.

Nikolai Batalov
Our sympathy shifts as the insurgent's mother becomes a widow, staring in vacant horror as her husband is carried lifeless into their rooms. Before long she has discovered what Pavel was hiding, a collection of firearms, and honest citizen that she is, believes the policeman when he promises that if her son only tells the truth he will be free.

The family are now involved in the legal machinery of the Tsarist state and all other considerations are discarded as punishment becomes more important than the crime…

A shock from under the floorboards
“Righteousness, justice, mercy… “ the tribunal sits lazily on the question of Pavel’s life, more concerned with fine horses than the three words they are supposedly guided by. There will be precious little of any today and Pavel is sentenced to hard labour. Incredulous, his mother begs forgiveness – she had no idea that her faith in authority would be so misguided. But she is not alone and soon there is a plan to free Pavel and other prisoners…

Now the film shifts tone and pace as the director drives on towards the family’s ultimate betrayal by their country in an ending possibly inspired by a smuggled copy of East is East. The use of montage is mesmeric, with repeated shots of partly melted ice on the river being juxtaposed with the movement of people towards the prison and then in aid of the rescue: it’s a relentless flow in both cases and very powerful.

“And don’t spare the guns…”
Pudovkiz is so good on the details as well as the scale. As Vlasov’s body lies in death, he focuses on mother, then a dripping tap, then her dead husband, the floorboards, her son and back again: the monotony of grief and despair. There is a rhythm and logical completeness in the way he goes about his story telling and it is perfect for the accompaniment of the Horne/Pyne collective….

The duo sounded more like a quintet with Martin on vibes as well as percussion and Stephen playing his usual array of piano, accordion, flute and sundries… at times their response to Pudovkin’s rapid cuts reminded me of hard-hitting modern jazzers The Bad Plus (known for their covers of The Pixies, Nirvana and Black Sabbath). The duo have developed their counter-play and this film with its revolutionary rhythms is an ideal movie metronome for them to progress their innovative collaboration.


I liked the way Martin’s vibraphone hung notes in the air as the imagery became more fluid only for the beat to strengthen and the music to develop­­­­­­­­­ firmer resolve as the narrative hardened towards the horrific conclusion.

A top notch 35mm print from the BFI was projected and the screen grabs here don’t really do the film justice. It’s available from the Internet Archive and also on cheap import DVD from Amazon or eBay but it surely deserves the same restoration care and attention as many lesser contemporaries.

A statue of Nikolai Aleksandrovich Romanov looks out over his people