Thursday, 11 October 2018

The music of chance… Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone, Day Five


It can be no co-incidence that the occurrence of co-incidence in the films of John M. Stahl is surprisingly regular: I mean, what are the odds? Yesterday's film, Suspicious Wives, relied on multiple instances of happenstance and today’s The Song of Life (1922) did too and in a much more satisfying and purposeful way.

Anyone familiar with the novels of Paul Auster will appreciate the role of chance in driving narrative and changing lives and Stahl’s deployment of sheer luck in this film was a question of stylistic impact and not, as Deadpool might say, “lazy writing” …

Co-incidence number one, a woman leaves her husband and child on the same day as he dies in a bizarre and frighteningly realistic railway accident. The film cuts forward thirty years to show that the move from dustbowl city just did not work out for the woman, Mary Tilden (Georgia Woodthorpe in a meaty role for a 62-year old), who is now struggling to make ends meet and not string enough to work even cleaning dishes.

Gaston Glass, Georgia Woodthorpe and Grace Darmond
Co-incidence number two; Mary decides to kill herself by drinking poison, but her cat knocks the drink from her hand and it drips through to the apartment below where a struggling writer, David (Gaston Glass) sees it drip onto his paper. He rushes up stairs and seeing that she has tried to kill herself invites her downstairs for breakfast and support. His wife Aline (Grace Darmond) returns and seeing the alacrity with which the older woman cleans up decides it’s a good idea if she moves in with them whilst she goes back to work.

Co-incidence number three: David’s book is about a baby abandoned by his mother on the day his father died… yes, Mary is his mother. This may seem all too convenient, but it sets up a rich melodrama that allows for much exposition on the nature of maternal love, abandoned children – why is David a writer? – and, ultimately retribution.

It’s the best Stahl so far and features some memorable moments in the happy-ish but poor lower East-side streets: two adorable children playing tricks on their dad, a cheeky monkey and a roof-top street party in the heat wave. There are some super exteriors of New York too.

Gabriel Thibaudeau accompanied on the piano with sympathy and taking each shock turn in his stride.

Hildur Carlberg
The film is an unusual love triangle – OK, quadrangle – but the programmers were smart lining it up after Dreyer’s The Parson's Widow (1920) which also features the (non-romantic) love between a mother—figure and two younger lovers.

This film, Swedish title Prästänkan, is much more defined and so remarkably controlled from the high-quality cinematography to the casting of so many memorable fizzogs: no Hollywood glamour here just real people with all their quirks!

It’s as madcap as Lubitsch and Pola but gradually evolves into a touching story of love, loss and community. Einar Rød – who looks like he’s on his way to playing an in-store acoustic set at Rough Trade East – is Söfren an unlikely aspiring pastor who is motivated by the “living” and not the calling as he applies for the vacant position. His sweetheart is Mari (Greta Almroth) and the two are banking on his winning the position.

Einar gets the gig but on one condition, the local law has it that the previous pastor’s widow can marry the successful candidate… This is when Hildur Carlberg makes her entrance as Margarete Pedersdotter and it is the most fascinating of castings, as with Stahl, another rich role for an older actor. Hildur is superb, scowling one minute and sardonic the next, making short work of Söfren’s blatant ambition and seemingly casting him under a spell. The two are wed and Mari comes to work at the parsonage as Söfren’s sister… Margarete sees this coming and blocks the two at every turn with her two faithful old retainers. It’s a good film for the older actors in general!

There were three people in the marriage...
It’s slapstick and subtle especially when Söfren dresses up as a demon to scare his wife to death… she wipes the floor with him as he raises his arms to show his slippers under the white sheet.
One of the very best films of the week and all the more so for John Sweeney’s continued revelries on the Teatro Verdi’s Fazioli piano.

Onto the afternoon and another film from a Balzac novel, the German Liebe (Histoire des treize) (1927), directed by Paul Czinner and starring his partner Elisabeth Bergner as the beguiling Antoinette de Langeais, a role previously played by Lyda Borelli and Norma Talmadge (The Eternal Flame (1922)) but here recreated more in line with the original story arc. Antoinette is unhappily married but will not allow any of her flirtations to develop, much to the frustration of the Marquis de Montriveau (Hans Rehmann) and, some of the watching audience…

Elisabeth Bergner and Hans Rehmann
Bergner is highly impressive in a series of sumptuous gowns and is a very nuanced performer on a par with the afore-mentioned on this evidence. The Marquis hatches a plan to teach her a lesson and you can understand why…

Günter Buchwald accompanied with grace and piano-patience.

The evening saw another orchestral treat with a screening of Mario Bonnard’s The Sposi Promises (1922) with the New Chamber Orchestra Ferruccio Busoni with Naonis Orchestra, conducted by Massimo Belli, performing Valter Sivilotti score.

I knew nothing about this film, which is always the delight of this silent shindig and it was… spettacolare! At first it looked like it was going to be a quirky rural comedy but by the end we had witnessed revolution, bread riots, invasion, massed battles, plague and some wild headgear.
Bonnard handles the epic and the intimate with equal skill and his quick cuts, tracking shots and framing is so consistent and compelling for a story that packs so much in. Sleep-deprived and a little bit groggy on Day Five, I was entertained enough to mouth “shhhh” in Italian to some chattering young Italians beside me (like they cared). When in Pordenone…

One Wedding and a Thousand Funerals
The restoration is sparkling and Valter Sivilotti’s score spirited and sympathetic: the best accompaniments always follow the film’s lead and have the confidence to run alongside with their own expression of the narrative. This was a huge deal for the Italians and Valter took his chance with the élan of Francesco Totti!

Bonnard adapted the classic novel by Alessandro Manzoni (1827) which is set in northern Italy in 1628, during the oppressive years of direct Spanish rule and the Milan plague of 1630, wikiparently the most widely read book in Italian history?

It’s an assault of characters and events but you soon get with the rhythm of a story based around the two lovers Lucia (Emilia Vidali) and Renzo (Domenico Serra – possibly a distant relative of Mike Myers?) who are forced apart by cruel nobility and feckless priests. It’s a lot of plot but in summary: One Wedding and a Thousand Funerals.

The cinematography of Giuseppe-Paolo Vitrotti is worthy of mention especially the aerial tracking on the baddy Don Rodrigo’s opulent dining table – I’ve seen this shot before but later (Dwan, Lubitsch?) and it sets the scene beautifully as the Spaniards revel in their ill-gotten opulence!

At the end you want to watch it all again which is handy as upstairs at the Teatro they’re selling the DVD edition published by the Fondazione Cineteca Italiana! There are mugs and t-shirts, but this will be my most Italian souvenir of Le Giornate 37!

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