A Look Back at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival 2020
November 17, 2020
The 39th annual Pordenone Silent Film Festival wrapped last month. This year’s virtual proceedings allowed spectators from around the globe to watch and participate in the prestigious Italian fest’s online events for the low price of €9.90, aka the deal of a lifetime. So naturally, I hopped on board!
I was blown away not only by the movies, none of which I’d heard of previously, but by the quality of the proceedings as well. The experience was so seamless and professionally presented, complete with a virtual ‘theater’ map so you could see how many other fans were in attendance, that I can’t imagine how spectacular the yearly festival must be.
This year’s selections came from archives around the globe, which were highlighted before each screening. I really enjoyed the spotlight these informative shorts shined on archivists, restorationists and the laborious work they undertake, especially the compelling entry from the Danish Film Archive that took us through the restoration process – from the digital storage it requires, to correcting movement, to how tinting works and beyond.
The festival’s decision to keep films online for 24 hours following their initial streaming allowed me to catch almost everything, save for three pictures. Without further ado, here’s a quick review of what I watched:
A Trip to Cairo with hand painted frames.
The Urge to Travel
I love seeing everyday people doing everyday things from generations past, which this compilation provided from various countries. New York (1911) stuck out to me, mainly because the print looked absolutely pristine, but my favorite short was 1928’s Un voyage au Caire/A Trip to Cairo for two reasons. 1. I’ve never seen more exquisitely detailed hand painted film in my life; I barely spotted a few straggly lines to confirm the technique, and 2. I was supposed to be in Cairo at the pyramids this past March for a friend’s wedding that was cancelled. Fingers crossed I’ll make it there next year, because this short gave me wanderlust all over again!
The Brilliant Biograph
These 68mm fragments shot throughout Europe from 1897-1902 by the Mutoscope and Biograph companies stunned with vivid clarity and extraordinary detail, delivering mesmerizingly sharp faces and expressions. (Due to their large format, these shorts rarely screened, so much of the film remained in great physical shape, too.) The variety was equally rich – from scenes of daily life (swimming, a funeral procession, a flower parade) to landscapes to Naval exercises and everything in between.
The simple activities these shorts captured reminded me how similar life was over a century ago… even if it seems vastly different because of all the luxuries we have today that didn’t exist then. For instance, seeing people leave a movie theater 120+ years ago, the camera capturing curious faces contemplating the brand-new technology, wowed me; to think, that was an incredibly new experience for them! (And now we can watch movies on our phones!) That said, I could feast on these shorts all day long, and I am open to offers to do so.
Zheng Junli and Ruan Lingyu in National Customs.
Guo Feng/National Customs (China, 1935)
Part romance, part contemplative cautionary drama, National Customs presented a strong commentary on the importance 1930s China placed on modesty and doing your part for the greater good of society while warning against the influence of Westernization and modernity. The leads, Ruan Lingyu and Li Lili, excelled in their respective roles as sisters seeking very different lives for themselves, with Ruan Lingyu (nicknamed China’s Garbo) showing off her acting chops through the restraint and reflective thoughtfulness she brought to the older sister. Conversely, Li Lili’s foolish, flippant younger sister aggravated me immensely, but that was the point they were going for.
I did find the ending rather abrupt and confusing, with the younger sister suddenly repenting for her reckless behavior and grasping the error of her ways. That said, I read that Chinese cinema at this time reflected the country’s political clashes between nationalism and communism, and I can see how the sisters mirrored those struggles, with one philosophy clearly winning out in the end.
Toodles, Tom and Trouble (US, 1915)
Toodles: a baby, Tom: an adult, Trouble: a dog. Plot: Tom loses Toodles and thinks that Trouble took off with the baby, when the dog is actually running around with a stuffed doll. A plausible mistake to make.
We were warned that no dogs were harmed in the making of this short, which was a nice heads up because the pup appears to explode in this film. Yes, really. The star of this short was the canine, and the whole time I found myself focusing on how the trainer got the dog to do all those tricks while keeping the doll in its mouth. In conclusion, this film just goes to show you that 100+ years later, people are still enamored by simple yet effective dog humor – and I’m sure that will remain the case a century from now.
Where Lights Are Low (US, 1921)
Two words: Sessue Hayakawa (whose production company, Haworth Pictures Corporation, produced this film). Here the badass Hayakawa, playing a Chinese prince, goes against convention and takes great lengths to free the girl he loves after she’s sold into prostitution in San Francisco. (For real; this was a legitimate fear at the time.) Despite the unfortunate but expected 1920s stereotypes, Where Lights are Low impressed with its powerful drama and tense scenes of revenge, which boasted very realistic action for the 1920s – we’re talking Hayakawa climbing a building and kicking ass, taking names, and eventually murdering a gang boss who has it out for him. (I was preparing for the worst in that scene.)
I wrote about Hayakawa for TCM recently, and I found that he generally never got the girl if she wasn’t Asian due to miscegenation laws. That said, he and his girl (Gloria Payton) get a happy ending here. Just another way he wins in this picture, I guess!
České hrady a zámky/Czech Castles and Places (Czech, 1916)
Though light and humorous to begin with, knowing the backstory and impetus for this short made it that much funnier. The story goes that actor Karel Hašler was appearing in a play in Prague when this idea popped into his head. In the short he’s spending a lovely afternoon with his girl when he’s reminded that he’s starring in a play in Prague 38km away, so he uses every mode of transportation possible – even hopping across rooftops – to get to his final destination. We don’t see him in the theater, but the idea was that this short would screen right before he'd burst out on stage, which is an ingenious, memorable way to capture the audiences’ attention!
Kill or Cure star Carlo Campogalliani has a lot to think about.
La tempesta in un cranio/Kill or Cure (or more accurately,The Storm in a Skull) (Italy, 1921)
I love comedy, which explains why I was drawn to this darkly humorous tale about a morose man (director Carlo Campogalliani) whose whole family lineage has succumbed to mental illness, so he figures it’s only a matter of time until he goes insane too. So, his friends and loved ones try to gaslight him into thinking he’s crazy… to prove that he’s not. Intertitles in which the main character asks a random passerby, “Excuse me, could you tell me if I’m alive?” gives you an idea of the film’s wit, which I am 100% into.
The summary gave the friends’ plan away, and while I watched this surreal comedy – not quite sure even what was real and what wasn’t at times – it made me wonder what I would have thought if I went in with no knowledge of the story; a fresh mind would have resulted in a big plot twist for the audience and not just the lead. That said, I found the friends’ elaborate ruse impressive, complete with a book of photos and a real-life adventure story based upon his exploits, which actually sounds like the ultimate experiential journey!
Oι Απάχηδες των Αθηνών/The Apaches of Athens (Greece, 1930)
I watched this film with a half Greek Cypriot toddler and a dog, so I had to stop and start the stream a few times. The ruse – in which a poor man (Petros Epitropakis) about to come into an unexpected inheritance is hired by a snubbed lover to masquerade as an aristocrat at a party to get back at the woman (Stella Hristoforidou) and her family who slighted him – of course works in different ways.
As a class comedy, I expected these hijinks and rebukes, but the film did contain some charming moments, especially near the end. What I enjoyed the most, however, was the accompaniment, part orchestral score and part choral. I’ve never heard an opera-like choral melody integrated into a silent movie. I must say, it worked beautifully as a nod to the operetta on which the film was adapted and gave the proceedings another dimension emotionally and lyrically that make it very memorable.
Brigitte Helm (center) stuns in The Devious Path.
Abwege/The Devious Path (Germany, 1928)
In a nutshell: Wow. This ranks incredibly high in the provocative department, topping most pre-Codes I’ve seen. If an American censorship file exists for this film, I would LOVE to read it.
Brigitte Helm, who I’ve only seen in Metropolis (1927), absolutely mesmerized in this movie as a neglected wife who embraces debauchery to spice up her life, though she remains faithful to her husband. I’ve concluded that Helm possessed the most sensual body language and most piercing eyes I think I’ve ever seen on screen; I actually couldn’t take my eyes off her. And then there’s the whole look of the film itself. The modern camerawork absolutely thrilled, at times pulling the audience along for the ride. This fast-paced cinematography meshed well with the breathtaking production design and posh style inherent in every object on screen. At times I truly felt as if I was watching a movie produced decades later, a feeling reinforced immensely by the flawless restoration. Truly spectacular on so many counts.
Ballettens datter/Daughter of the Ballet (Denmark, 1913)
Though produced 107 years ago, this film served up the age-old art vs. love challenge people still deal with today: Working woman Rita Sacchetto (a ballerina, in this case) marries a Count (Svend Aggerholm), Count tells her to give up her career to be a wife, wife complies but misses her work, and wife ends up going back to the stage secretly – for one night only to fill in for someone else. Of course, the Count finds out and challenges the theater manager, who he suspects is his wife’s lover, to a duel. (OK, the duel part, as well as the elaborate fake pill scheme to get out of said duel, is more of its time and hopefully not something you’d see today.)
Despite the happy ending, it was enthralling seeing the wife (lightly) push back against the strict confines of society and marriage. Though she worked in secret, she made it seem as though married women could indeed handle a job outside the home during that time – as long as husbands didn’t flip out over it!
I thoroughly enjoyed my first taste (sans Italian food) of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival! Hopefully, one day I’ll be able to make the festivities in person. If you also participated online, let me know which film you liked best in the comments!