Day Five at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival

Where Tuesday offered almost too many short films to mention, Wednesday was quite another ball game as I only managed to see three films. It does however bear pointing out that one of them happened to be a six hour silent version of Les Miserables, so it’s not as if I’m shirking my film-watching duties while I’m here.

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Before I get to the colossus in the schedule, a brief mention has to go to the other two titles, or rather one feature and one collection that I managed to encounter today. Morning started with the deliriously wonderful Swedish comedy Flickorna Gyurkovics, or A Sister of Six to take the peculiar English title for the film. A dizzying tale of betrothals and missed engagements, the young lovelorn cast bounced between fighting for the affections of the opposite sex, only to lose interest completely once the feeling was requited. This incredibly tightly woven farce demanded the audience’s complete and utter attention, as more than a few gags set up in the first reel only gave their pay-off come the final act. For this half-British/half-Swedish audience member there was a subtle thrill in seeing the British comic actress Betty Balfour hold her own in the Swedish production, although initially I was puzzled why the film had a Hungarian setting, of all things. “Oh that’s because it was based on a Hungarian play!” a Danish friend pointed out “The Danes and the Swedes were crazy for Hungarian stage comedies in the 1920s.” Funny indeed how trends in comedy and drama come and go with the ages, as I cannot say the Hungarian influence lingers any longer on Nordic shores. Or maybe our modern concept of Scandinavian humour actually has it’s roots in the Magyar tradition. Who knows? There’s a research project in there somewhere no doubt.

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The second collection was a very peculiar programme of incredibly short and fragmentary titles from the Italian quick-change artist Leopold Fregoli. The art of the quick-change is not as popular in the UK as it still proves to be in continetal Europe, and for the uninitiated it can briefly be described as the trick of changing costume on stage dozens of times, going from one improbable get up to another in a matter of seconds. As in ten seconds of less to be precise. The Italian quick-change superstar Arturo Brachetti was in town especially for the show, and while his status was lost on most (but not all) Brits, the buzz among the locals made clear that this was a very special appearance. Think of him as a celebrity on par with Derren Brown, and we might be approaching an equivalent strata of star veneration. Either ways, he gave charming history of the original Italian quick-change mastermind, which served as a brilliant briefing before a very scatter-gun and peculiar programme of films. Almost all from pre-1900, these were fragmentary clips, most barely more than 30 seconds, and showed Fregoli developing ideas, workshopping skits, generally just trying out things in front of the camera. Very few had a punchline, even fewer had a complete narrative as such, but it was a fascinating insight into how the master worked, and a fine example of how stars of the stage actively had to adapt their shows for the new phenomenon of cinema.

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And finally we get to the epic film screening, the hump of the festival week which had been anticipated with equal parts glee and dread, or so I sensed when asking around in the last few days. As someone who has tacitly managed to dodge Les Miserable in all it’s forms, thanks in great part to Mr Lloyd Webber et co, I was eager to see an unexpurgated version of the story. Clocking in at six and a half hours, or eight if you include breaks, this viewing experience loomed large as a test of stamina more than anything else. Yet in the moment, the six and a half hour moment that is, the film thundered along at a pace which rarely dragged or felt overly languid. There really is a truism in the point that a terrible film of ten minutes can drag for a neverending eternity, whereas a brilliant film of seven hours can pass in the proverbial blinking of an eye.

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Split across four chapters, this grand adaptation from 1925 shows French director Henri Fescourt in his prime. Coming from a long history of self-consciously worthy silent stage to screen adaptations in the long running Film d’Art series, this version of Les Miserable felt liberated from having to justify it’s existence in the face of more established art forms. It manages to be uniquely cinematic, not with the visual fireworks of Abel Gance’s Napoleon, but rather in it’s ability to capture wonderfully humane performances. Gabriel Gabrio as Jean Valjean was a towering presence on screen, and his redemptive arc, and gradual aging were shown in a convincing way. Jean Toulout as Javert was also superb, at times overpowered by some of the mightiest brows and mutton chops I’ve seen in a long time. The climax of his personal crisis, and collapse of his moral world was incredibly striking, with extreme close-ups capturing a bristling performance.

However the truly noteworthy performance of the evening was that of accompanist Neil Brand, who followed the whole film in sensitive and grand fashion for the whole duration. I could barely imagine typing on a keyboard for six hours flat, so how the virtuoso pianist managed to keep pace with the film, to underscore the emotional performances without melodrama, while also driving the narrative forward, is a feat of tremendous skill and talent. Having heard more than one of his musical peers rave about his performance after the show, I think their claim that his was a seminal silent event is no great exaggeration. An unforgettable musical accompaniment from a redoubtable pianist for a epic yet utterly humane film. It rarely gets much better than that.

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