Where does fake hair come from? This is the sort of question that gets answered — in this case, by a 1909 French one-reeler on wig-making called D’où viennent les faux cheveux? — at Il Cinema Ritrovato (June 27-July 4), a film festival in Italy which, over the last 23 years, has become as precious as the cinematic marvels it uncovers. There are many festivals in Italy, but none that combine impeccable scholarship, madness and fun quite like the one taking place every June in Bologna — a great, red, sun-baked city with a bad graffiti problem. Not only do you get marvy series like “Searching for Color” (a survey of all the processes from pochoir to Kinemacolour and Gaumont’s Chronochrome) and discouraging ones like “Vichy Propaganda Films Under the Nazi Occupation.” You also get to see Luchino Visconti’s restored Senso on the Piazza Maggiore, under a full moon, and to ride with Maciste, the beloved strongman of Italian cinema, in his special Diatolina one-seater. It is this mix of seriousness and showmanship that makes Bologna unique on the festival calendar.
The Cineteca di Bologna is big on anniversaries, and in the course of “One Hundred Years Ago — the Films of 1909,” we learned that the world’s first film festival (Primo Concorso Mondiale di Cinematografia) occurred a century ago in Milan. In addition, this wondrous 12-part program offered an eye-popping panorama of world cinema production in 1909 — not only Griffith’s incredible output (he directed 142 titles that year), but all kinds of stuff, from the inevitable Cretinetti comedies (featuring the Italian comic character who, with Maciste, has become the festival’s mascot) to French documentary pioneer Alfred Machin’s relentless hunting trips to … hair cropping in Brittany. Seeing peasant women in the market being sheared like sheep (for barter, against two yards of cotton cloth) was strangely affecting, as was the hair being washed in vats, then carded and combed by women and then sewed onto wigs. Then we see the silly demimondaine coming home and parking her curls for the night. Economic exploitation has rarely been shown in starker fashion.
But this year’s meat-and-potatoes programs were an exhaustive retrospective of Frank Capra’s silent films and early talkies, as well as the beginning of a rediscovery of Vittorio Cottafavi, a loner artist in the Italian cinematic landscape of the ’50s who was once accused of “filofascism” by the critics (for a film he made in 1949 about the unsung valor of carabinieri) and then toiled in the melodrama genre, only to make a strange career in the flourishing blood-and-sandal films of the period (Legions of the Nile, Amazons of Rome, etc.) A prolific filmmaker, for years Cottafavi has been the subject of a fevered cult among a clique of French critics, but his reputation so far has remained as subterranean as his rarely shown films. François Truffaut was the first to notice his work in 1953, with Traviata ’53 (also known as The Lost One and Fille d’amour). It is a great film, to be ranked with Antonioni’s early features — very tough in its depiction of Milanese society, its hypocrisy and the fate of kept women. Like in Le Amiche and Cronaca di un Amore, there are a lot of sable coats, and a lot of dirt underneath.
Seeing some of Capra’s early work is like seeing, à la It’s a Wonderful Life, what wouldn’t have happened had he started making films sui generis, as he sometimes would have us believe in his autobiography. Capra’s contrarian biographer, Joseph McBride, was on hand to correct this image, but the films spoke louder, especially the silent ones.
Capra didn’t just walk onto Mack Sennett’s or Columbia’s lots from the street and start cooking. He made all kinds of films at Columbia before hitting his stride and winning his first Oscar in 1934: dirigible pictures, flying pictures, boxing pictures, even early social satires, like the great Ladies of Leisure (1930), his first of many collaborations with Barbara Stanwyck and screenwriter Jo Swerling. And he was never better than The Strong Man (1926), the best of his comedies with Harry Langdon. All these stories pack the wallop missing in some of his celebrated, “meaningful” pictures, like The Bitter Tea of General Yen, or even Lost Horizon. In Ladies of Leisure, three bottles thrown from a penthouse down to the sidewalk and passersby say all there is to say about the crowd of useless loafers we’re going to meet. The condemnation is swift, and we can pass on to something else.
Capra also wrote that if sound hadn’t come, he would not have amounted to much in pictures, but the 64-minute, action- and feeling-packed The Way of the Strong alone disproves that. Made in 1928, this story of a gangster named Handsome (Mitchell Lewis), who can stand everything but the sight of his ugly face — it ranks with Tod Browning’s The Unknown — becomes a sublime and even stranger tale of impossible love between the hood and a blind street violin player (Alice Day). Asked by the girl if she can touch his face, the moment recalls some of City Lights. All very un–Capra-esque, except that Handsome shoots himself in the chest while driving, one of only two successful suicides in his films, which include many attempts. Capra was greatly helped in all this by his cameraman, Joseph Walker. The two men seem to have loved rain scenes even more than Tsai Ming-liang did.
Sony is planning a DVD box of some of these films for next year, but chances are that the Stanwyck vehicles will come first, as will the spectaculars like Dirigible. Only one of Capra’s Columbia films is known to be lost, a breezy yarn called Say It with Sables. But we got to see the trailer. Bologna is that kind of festival.