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Festival Report Giornate Del Cinema Muto 2023

Co-Director James Harrison gives an overview of his five favourite films which he hopes to bring to the south west in the new year.

Every year I go to Le Giornate Del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, Italy (and I’ve been a lot since 2005) I’m always amazed on the impact of seeing silent film on a very big screen, with live music (usually with an orchestra in the case of the Giornate) and with an audience. In fact, 2023, I felt was another classic year for the festival now celebrating its 42nd year!

Five Highlights from Le Giornate Del Cinema Muto 2023:

1) La Divine Croisière (1929)

The opening night of the Giornate couldn’t have gone any better… and what a beautiful film to start off with. Directed by the great French film director Julien Duvivier (Poil de Carotte/ Un Carnet du bal/ Pépé le Moko) and starring soon to be classic stars Jean Murat (L'Homme à Abattre/ J'étais une Aventurière) and Line Noro (La Flame/ Pépé le Moko) you really couldn’t get anymore French if you tried. La Divine Croisière tells the story of a small fishing village on the coast of Brittany and very much shows the many conflicts between the local fishing workers and the local gentry. In fact, thanks to childhood holidays in the region, I recognised the gentry’s over shadowing castle as the stunning Château de Combourg which never looked so menacing. Anyway I digress.

The gentry (headed by Murat) force the youngest of the fisherman on a shipping voyage of shear doom into the unknown high seas of the Atlantic. Expect plenty of incredible cinematography with ships crashing through the seas.

And while a good chunk of the film is shot around the Brittany region, it did gives off the vibes of our very own Cornish coast. That is logical of course given that Cornwall is very much adjacent to the Breton coast; but it was also the local extras which gave it even more of a south west feel.

Of course Divine Croisière translates as ‘Divine Crossing’ and I think it most certainly would be one for audiences here.

2) Oh! What a Nurse! (1926)

I had no thoughts about to what initially think of this film as the lights dimmed. But as the lights came back up afterwards, only one thought came into my mind. “Wow! Just like his step-brother Charlie, Syd Charlie looked amazing in drag!”.

Produced by Warner Bros. and released in the later part of 1929, Oh! What a Nurse! Does begin in a rough way; in fact, the film very much jumps from the outset… but it soon begins to smooth out after a couple of minutes. “You have to give it time someone” someone had told me before hand, “It really isn’t too bad!” while someone else passed by me warning me that it was “a stinker!”. I later found out that they had seen it on their own and not with an audience.

And what a difference an audience can make for a film that tells the story of an adventurous columnist who must take on the identity of a woman (in two different costumes) to save a girl from being forced into a marriage. A lot of laughs ensued. Expect a full restoration for this film in the coming few months.

3) Zigano (1925)

One of the big strands for this year’s Giornate was one showcasing German born ‘Daredevil Director and Star’ Harry Piel. Someone I had never heard of before. Piel, as curator and film restorer Andreas Thein, stated in his introductory notes, that Piel ‘[was] as a daredevil adventurer, becoming the most popular German actor of the Sensationsfilm (action-adventure film) genre of the 1920s and 1930s. Between Imperial Germany and National Socialism, he was a constant reliable force in the German film market as director, screenwriter, actor, producer and founder of five production companies.’

The choice of selection of Piel’s work was broad and covered the many aspects of his work. Not everything was too my liking, or to others, but we all got a sense of the true essence of Piel’s character, on and off the screen. But one title which stood out for me was Zigano (1925), Piel’s own take of the Fairbanks swashbuckling adventure which very much took the essence of Fairbanks’ film into a new aspect. Taking the swashbuckling away from Hollywood and dumping in the middle of the European countryside.

Gone are the Hollywood sets; these backdrops are real from the aspect of being from the real period of the 18th Century (even earlier). Exteriors were shot in and around Tivoli near Rome and the gardens of the stunning Ville d’Este. Talk about backdrops!

What comes out is a pretty impressive rip-roaring period adventure, involving plenty of swordplay, gun actions, explosions, very impressive horse riding and acrobatics making Zigano a genuine European 1920s action film. There are also nods to past swashbuckling European adventures, including Piel using the hints of the backstory of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and substituting the chase of Queen Anne of France’s diamond necklace to the pursuit of the Italian Queen’s ring. Very good fun overall.

4) Vendémiaire (1918)

Written and directed by the master of the silent film French serial, Louis Feuillade, Vendémiaire is very much the opposite to his most favourable of titles such as Les Vampires (1915-16) and Fantômas (1913). But there is so much goodness that can be seen in this film it’s hard to believe that it has been put to the side so much.

I for one have a confession, it was only about 10-15mins into the screening at the Giornate I began to realise I had seen Vendémiaire once before. Five years earlier I had sat down for this (almost) 3 hour drama at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2018, then being screened 35mm. This time, it was a brand new restoration.

Set in the sunshine of rural France, Vendémiaire tells the story of a group of French refugees who have fled the war-torn north to work in the grape fields of the south. But all is not what it seems as two of the workers on the fields are in fact escaped German POWs who will do anything to keep themselves from being arrested. Expect murder, violence and one incredibly horrific death involving grapes. ‘Death by grape’ no less!

If anything, seeing Vendémiaire this time around thanks to this stunning new restoration only reinforced myself that this is a film worth seeing… at least… in the end… twice!

5) Harlem Sketches (1935)

One of my favourite programmes during the Giornate is always the short non-fiction strands. This year’s gems included stunning titles showcasing Istanbul in 1912, London in 1927 and Tenerife in 1925.

Out of all of them however, Harlem Sketches from 1935 stood out. A record of the people and atmosphere of 1930s Harlem, filmed the same year as the Harlem Race Riot of 1935. This film gave the sense of the anger and anxiety of the people we saw in front of us. But it was not all doom and gloom as there was some great footage of the cultural side of the area including music and I’m sure I spotted the odd cinema at the same time. I feel this little 16 minute short would work perfectly with a future film noir.

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