Film festivals have been an unwieldy part of my life for nearly a quarter of a century. It was in 1971 that I initially encountered Cannes and found, not for the last time, that I was deluged by more movies more often than I wanted to handle.
In my youthful naivete, I confided these thoughts to Italian director Luchino Visconti during an interview. "Isn't it a bit overwhelming?" I said to the great man, whose vibrant argyle socks I still remember. He turned his hawk-like features to me in shock. "It is cinema, cinema, cinema, all day long," he exclaimed. "I love it."
From that time to this, I have struggled to have Visconti's attitude toward festivals, but it has not been easy. Though they are often held in pleasant and diverting cities, too many theaters, too many deadlines, and too much relentless hype make these events an exasperating chore for a working reporter or critic.
But just as I felt inescapably mired in negativity, I found the festival of my dreams, the one that delivers what all the others only promise, perhaps the most satisfying and enjoyable film event in the world. And, Visconti would be pleased to know, it just happens to take place in Italy.
Held every October in this northern Italian town, the recently completed eight-day event does not even call itself a festival. Known as Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (The Days of Silent Film) and devoted to the art of film before the coming of sound, its combination of conviviality and comprehensiveness cannot be matched.
What makes Le Giornate so special? Let us count the ways.
* It is held in only one location, the venerable Teatro Cinema Verdi, built during the early part of the century and remodeled in the 1950s. This may seem like a small thing, but anyone who has spent frantic hours first trying to figure out which of several conflicting films to see and then rushing around trying to get from one venue to another knows what bliss that single setting is.
* It is human scaled. Pordenone's finite hotel space limits the number of out-of-towners who can attend the festival to between 500 and 600, which means that though the Verdi is always comfortably full, lining up ahead of time to ensure a decent seat is unheard of. And having 2 1/2-hour breaks for both lunch and dinner built into the schedule is a welcome concession to the finer things in life.
* It has a great feeling of warmth and camaraderie. Run by a committee of eight largely youthful and completely devoted enthusiasts, a group that has remained almost unchanged since Le Giornate's beginnings 13 years ago, the festival has a purity about its love for film that puts a glow on everything it touches.
* It is truly an international event. Don't let its pleasant side fool you: Le Giornate is thoroughly professional and serious about what it does. Ten to 11 hours of film are shown day in and day out, and the event is the center of the universe for the archivists, preservationists, scholars and non-professional fans whose lives revolve around silent cinema.
Participants this year came from every country in Western Europe, plus Japan, China, Israel, India, Russia, Poland and the United States, and they were so devoted to the proceedings that not even Pordenone's biggest public demonstration since 1970, part of a one-day nationwide general strike, could get them out of the theater.
* Its selection of films is spectacular, not only in terms of what is picked to be shown but also how they are exhibited. Prints at Le Giornate are the best available anywhere, they are shown at the correct speed--a fairly tricky bit of business where silents are concerned--and they always have musical accompaniment, with a brace of pianists spelling each other at two-hour intervals.
The main musical events, which employ more than piano, are always the festival's opening and closing nights, when special pains are taken to make the screening something of an occasion.
Opening night this year was a naturalistic late silent, the 1928 "Lonesome," directed by Paul Fejos, a simple but charming Manhattan love story about a man and woman (Glenn Tryon and Barbara Kent) who find each other during a raucous day at Coney Island. The accompaniment was by the Alloy Orchestra, a discovery of the Telluride Film Festival, which brought its high-quality, high-energy music to the proceedings.
The closing night film was many things, but charming was not one of them. "The Unknown," directed by the brooding Tod Browning, starred Lon Chaney as a circus performer who pretends to be armless and Joan Crawford as the ingenue who likes him that way. It's so unnerving that even John Cale, who performed his own specially written electronic score, was moved to call the work "a fairly sick film, for want of a better word."
Perhaps the festival's most hypnotic musical highlight was the intoxicating Indian music, a combination of vocals, percussion and harmonium improvised on the spot for the festival's multi-day tribute to Indian silent cinema, a package that had never left the subcontinent before. Most memorable was a stunning print of the 1928 "Shiraz," an assured fantasy shot on real locations and telling a romanticized version of the story behind the building of the Taj Mahal.
Sometimes the musical touches were unexpected, as happened during a segment of the festival's tribute to the rarely seen silent films--mostly Westerns--of the master Hollywood director William Wyler, which was attended by all four of his children.
H ard as it is to believe, despite its worldwide reputation and the landmark nature of its retrospectives (which this year included looks at the directing of the elegant, undervalued director Monta Bell and the manic humor of little-known silent comedians), what will happen in the year to come is always a question mark for Le Giornate. Perpetual money troubles, a perennial lack of clout in Italy's highly politicized world of festival financing, and the continuously uncertain physical state of the Verdi make plans for the following festival frustratingly problematical.
For Los Angeles residents who dream of Pordenone, however, next year looks especially promising. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in combination with the American Cinematheque, are planning a multi-day tribute to Le Giornate early next year that will show the best of the festival's past few years, complete with musical accompaniment. It won't be the same as being in Italy, but it's a start.*