Pordenone 2001
feature by Sean Axmaker, 7 December 2001

"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.




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