Day One at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival

There aren’t many regular fixtures in the silent film calendar, but the Pordenone Silent Film Festival is the big one that sees stummfilm fans from around the world bending over backwards to get there. Having first attended the festival back in 2007,  I’ve been back almost every year since, with an unnerving regularity that has non-silent film friends asking “what, you’re going back to Italy again?” For the converted the discussion revolves solely whether you will be going, and I know one good friend who, without batting an eyelid, starts asking around December time whether I have made plans for attending the festival in the following October.  For those on the outside this can seem a little baffling; to those on the inside it makes total sense.

Which for me is no better reason for trying to keep a running journal of sorts while I’m here at this year’s festival. Partly to keep track of what I’ve seen, but also to try and give some half-baked sense of what this obsession is, and to try and help those outside the silent film bubble to understand why the converted bang on about this festival so much.

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The setting is part of it, as it takes place in the town of Pordenone (pop 52’000), just shy of an hours travel north of Venice, and spitting distance from the Venetian alps. It’s difficult to not view the festival-goers as an invading horde, as the slew of international visitors completely take over the city for the week. English is the language the lingua franca you hear echoing in the streets, and silent cinema, if not film history, seems to be the only topic on everybody’s lips. At times you really have to remind yourself there actually is a city of Italians who live here for the other 51 weeks of the year.

Charming as the city is, with its reasonably priced wine/coffee/gelatos, the film programme is the chief attraction, and Pordenone is the pre-eminent place to see premieres of the latest discoveries and restorations from the fading world of silent cinema. To describe the programme as eclectic would be an understatement, as within the narrow remit of non-sound cinema it still manages to capture film from across the world. To take the first day as a prime example I had the good fortune of seeing a Norwegian tiger-tamer, a brief documentary about Romany travellers from 1932, an occasionally dream-like city symphony in honour of Chicago, a daft take on Romeo and Juliette in snowy Austria, followed by a ludicrously funny Italian war film, where the Italian strongman Maciste effectively won the war against Austro-Hungary by defenestrating every enemy soldier he could find. That is, when Maciste wasn’t too  busy snacking on a joint of ham or the like.

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A certain pleasure of the festival is the repeated confrontation with the unexpected, and the complete absence of critical consensus on almost everything. Talk to a gaggle of festival goers after any screening and more often than not the opinions will stretch from pillar to post. Romeo and Juliette, despite it’s light and cheeky humour, true to director Ernst Lubitsch, somehow had friends in raptures while sending me to sleep. Others found Maciste a colossal bore, but I couldn’t stop laughing at his ability to just end any conflict by either a) sitting on someone or alternatively b) throwing them out the window. That and his undying need to eat, and smile constantly through out. Daft and humourous, but also incredibly dark if you consider how it dramatizes an extremely dark and tragic chapter of the alpine front of World War One. Either ways the one critical consensus we did establish was the film probably could have benefitted from being a reel shorter, but that opinion may have been informed by the fact that the screening started at ten in the evening and wrapped up not long before midnight.

Now at the start of Day Two I’m already running late for some more City Symphonies, but uncharacteristically it is absolutely pissing it down with rain. Or rather intermittently so, and the last shower started and stopped in the time it took me to write that last sentence. Better run while the sun still shines, off to go and sit in a darkened room for another 9 to 12 hours. Mustn’t grumble.

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