A Festival of Festivals

The six-year-old Cinetopia Film Festival has always been promoted as a gathering place for movies from film festivals around the world.

This mission has given film lovers in southeastern Michigan access to cinematic wonders from the Cannes, Sundance, Toronto, Venice, and other film festivals. Cinetopia has grown to the point where it can include smaller film festivals that could easily stand on their own, including the Arab American Film Festival.

Starting this year, Cinetopia also included Il Cinema Ritrovato, a 30-year-old Italian festival that focuses on restored films. Several selections from Il Cinema Ritrovato were screened at the Detroit Film Theatre from June 8 to June 11, 2017.

I attended the screenings of two feature length films and one collection of silent short movies. After each event, I came away with both a sense of discovery and a heightened sense of cinematic enjoyment.

First up was the opening night screening on June 8 of the 1965 Italian comedy/drama I Knew Her Well. It was a free-wheeling, free-spirited movie about a free-wheeling, free-spirited young woman.

DFT founder Elliot Wilhelm told the audience that I Knew Her Well was not distributed in the United States when it was first released, which surprised me because it had the sexiness that often attracted U.S. audiences to foreign language films in the 1950s and 1960s.

The woman was played by Stefania Sandrelli, who is probably best known for her role in the 1970 drama The Conformist. Sandrelli’s character was a model and actress whose very active life included several love affairs.

The soundtrack of Sandrelli’s life was filled with Italian pop music, to help propel her busy lifestyle, and maybe also fill up empty spaces in her life. The style of the movie was probably influenced by the experimental French New Wave and maybe also the frenetic style of A Hard Day’s Night, released one year earlier.

I Knew Her Well

I Knew Her Well

I Knew Her Well was mainly a character study of Sandrelli, with just enough plot to flesh out a feature-length movie. To fully understand I Knew Her Well, you might need to see it twice—once to get familiar with the personality of Sandrelli, and a second time to fully understand her actions and life with the background knowledge from the first viewing.

Ultimately, Sandrelli had to face the superficiality of her life, in several scenes that carry the dramatic weight of a movie that was mysteriously and ironically titled I Knew Her Well. In one crucial scene, the morning after an apparent one night stand with an older man, this man indirectly provides Sandrelli with a perfect and sobering description of herself.

I took in two more screenings of this traveling exhibition of films from Il Cinema Ritrovato on the afternoon of Saturday, June 10.

First was a collection of silent short films produced in Italy from 1915 to 1917. These movies were made for different reasons—storytelling, promotion, documentation.

The centerpiece of this collection was the 42-minute Rapsodia Satanica, which used tinting, color splashes, and a heavily orchestrated musical score to tell a version of the Faust story.

The lead actress (Lyda Borelli) was very expressive as she transitioned back and forth between old age and youth. Her smooth movements reminded me of how stage acting heavily influenced film acting in the early days of cinema.

Among the other short films, two automotive-related movies probably held special interest for DFT visitors. These movies about Fiat and Ford were promotional and documentary in nature, and included scenes of the manufacturing process. At times they were a little repetitive, but then I realized the significance of these movies simply existing. They took the audience back to a time whose familiar and unfamiliar details helped show how life has changed in the last 100 years.

My Il Cinema Ritrovato journey ended with the 1969 Egyptian drama The Night of Counting the Years. This serious drama first screened at the DFT about 40 years ago on March 19, 1976. But the fragility of film and the carelessness of some projectionists helped take the movie out of circulation for decades.

The Night of Counting the Years was so solemn that it almost felt like a mock-serious parody. But soon I fell into its rhythms, and it lived up to its Cinetopia program description: “The drama’s carefully measured pace, almost ceremonial movement of the camera, and unsettling score all work in perfect harmony.”

The Night of Counting the Years

The Night of Counting the Years

The theme of the movie was loyalty and responsibility—to one’s immediate and tribal families; to history; and to oneself. The last half hour was particularly good, as the film came to a stirring, heroic, hopeful conclusion. The ending of the movie left me feeling genuine admiration for the moral choices made by several characters in the final scenes.

Other highlights of my Il Cinema Ritrovato experience at the DFT were two fascinating series of images that preceded each screening.

First was a series of still images from all of the movies shown at this year’s Cinetopia. The striking nature of these images connected me strongly to the energetic eclecticism of the festival and often made me reach for the festival program for more information about particular films.

The other series of images was a collage of very short excerpts from films that I’m guessing have been part of previous editions of Il Cinema Ritrovato. This dazzling collection of moving images from many eras and styles of film was a heady shot of cinematic adrenaline.

After watching The Night of Counting the Years, I walked outside into a hot Saturday afternoon that was tempered by a massaging breeze. In the pure pleasure of this early summer moment, I reflected on Il Cinema Ritrovato and hoped that it would be a part of future Cinetopias.

Film festivals should always honor the history of movies, and special recognition should be given to events like Il Cinema Ritrovato that not only screen lesser known classics, but also protect them from the ravages of time.

Detroit Movie Palaces Home Page

Copyright © 2017 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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