"If all you’ve seen is the cut American version, you ain't seen nothin' yet."
Kevin Brownlow’s introduction to his latest
and greatest restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoléon ironically but
endearingly twists the words that heralded the sound film era and sounded the
death knell of silent cinema. When the movies first learned to talk, the camera
became a slave to the primitive sound technology. Abel Gance’s Napoléon
premiered in 1927, the year of The Jazz Singer, and is as fluid and
adventuresome and cinematically thrilling as The Jazz Singer and
hackneyed and mawkish and, in its sound scenes, static and stiff. The future was
sound but Napoléon, the most expensive film made in France to that time,
remains the glorious lifeblood of cinema.
Brownlow’s passion and excitement is not
merely infectious, it's well earned. He’s been restoring Napoléan for
over forty years, after getting a taste of its grandeur as a film-mad lad
watching a digest version prepared for 8mm projectors. This new
five-and-a-half-hour version (“probably the most complete it will ever be,”
confesses Brownlow) was screened for the Festival audience at a special venue
(the Udine Opera House) with full orchestra under the baton of Carl Davis, who
prepared and arranged the score. It was the first time this print had bee
screened since it’s gala London premiere and it brought the twentieth
Anniversary of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, the grandest, greatest
silent film festival in the known universe, to a thrilling climax.
But I get ahead of myself.
Le Giornate del Cinema Muto
(better known as the Pordenone Silent Film Festival) is an annual event held in
Sacile, Italy, moved from its original home of Pordenone three years ago, when
the festival's flagship theater was closed down. In the past nineteen years
Pordenone has established itself as the most impressive, most influential, and
most prestigious silent film festival in the world. Hundreds of scholars,
professors, archivists, collectors, and silent film fans from all over the globe
converge on the small Northern Italy town of Sacile for eight days of marathon
film viewing. The town’s performing arts center, Theatre Zancarno,
runs film programs from 9:30 am to past midnight, while a secondary
“video” venue, Theatre Ruffo, supplements the primary
screenings with projected video programs of documentaries, a few film repeats,
and, this year, even a couple of sound films. The guests largely bus in from
Pordenone about twelve km (eight miles) away every morning and bus back late at
night, leaving little time for sleep for the diehards. Top notch live piano
accompaniment brightened almost every screening and the language barrier was
solved with radio headsets offering live English and Italian translations of
foreign language intertitles. An inspired solution, even if the translations
were at times clumsy and rushed.
Sacile itself is a tiny little town of about
10,000. Known as “the little Venice,” because Venetian royalty spent their
summers here, it’s a beautiful little burg with a gorgeous old-town center,
where the festival venues are situated. Walking between theaters, or uptown to
the bustling book and memorabilia sale at the Film Fair, takes you along
cobblestone streets, past centuries old buildings, over two rivers which cut
through the town like shallow canals from its namesake, and through narrow old
town city streets.
As the festival has grown, so has its ambition.
For the twentieth anniversary, festival presidents David Robinson and Livio
Jacobs put together an astounding collection: a survey of Japanese silent
cinema, features and shorts by Oscar Michaeux and “his circle” of African
American filmmakers, the fifth installment of the ambitious "The Griffith
Project" (an attempt to find, restore, and show every single film directed
by silent film maestro D.W. Griffith - this year dedicated 1911), and special
presentations of many more recently discovered and restored films.