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Analogue cinema for the digital age: Il Cinema Ritrovato

This annual showcase for little-seen, lost and restored cinema is probably the world's nerdiest film festival

A screening at Piazza Maggiore. Photos: Lorenzo Burlando
A screening at Piazza Maggiore. Photos: Lorenzo Burlando

During a screening at Il Cinema Ritrovato, a professor of film studies, who was sitting next to me, asked: “Are you a film scholar?" I was taken aback by the question and replied, “I am just a cinephile—nothing more, nothing less." He laughed and said, “We all are, at the Ritrovato."

Il Cinema Ritrovato, the 31st edition of which was held from 24 June-2 July, doesn’t fit the film festival stereotype of red carpets, photographers, parties and people queuing to catch a glimpse of their favourite actors. Yet, it is one of the world’s most important festivals dedicated to film restoration, and the annual meeting ground for cinephiles from all over the world. The audience is diverse, just like the selection of films. Scholars, critics, DVD label owners, film-makers, artists and people who don’t fit into any of these categories attend this week-long festival in the Italian city of Bologna every year, discovering rare, lost and restored films.

This year, Ritrovato screened 500 films in 20 different sections—from Robert Mitchum, Jean Vigo and Buster Keaton retrospectives to precious vintage Technicolor films; from the Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project (which supports the restoration of neglected and at-risk films around the world) to restored Universal Pictures titles; from the silents of French director Abel Gance to the digitally restored classics of Howard Hawks and Ernst Lubitsch in 35mm—giving cinephiles the sweet headache of planning an almost impossible itinerary. With meticulous planning, though, one can still discover a wide range of films.

I have to confess that I knew only a handful of film-makers and films screening this year. I took it as a blessing in disguise, decided not to have a predetermined itinerary and allow Ritrovato to surprise me instead. The only thing I planned was my accommodation. I opted for a home-stay with an Italian student; most of my evenings were spent at his place, along with his friends, experimenting with the local cuisine.

My first night at Ritrovato started with an open-air screening of Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (a 4K restored version) at Piazza Maggiore, Bologna’s central square. Listening to the songs of Simon and Garfunkel in the film and gazing at the historical city centre of Bologna, filled with an enthusiastic audience, was enough to induce goosebumps. Watching a film at Piazza Maggiore is an experience in itself. The screenings usually start late in the evening, against the backdrop of a beautiful sunset, accompanied by a swirl of cool breeze. One can see the influx of people from all corners of the city minutes before a screening begins, trying to get a comfortable seat (chairs at the Piazza or the stairs of Basilica di San Petronio in the corner) to watch the film.

Even though I was gutted to miss the screening, accompanied by a live orchestra, of Steamboat Bill, Jr, Charles Reisner’s silent comedy starring Buster Keaton, one of the memorable experiences at the Piazza was watching Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar along with my host: The audience got so involved it started applauding Joan Crawford’s one-liners. The film-lovers of Bologna went even further on another occasion, re-enacting the famous Odessa steps sequence from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin ahead of its screening at the Piazza Maggiore (my host told me that most Italians recognize Battleship Potemkin because of the Italian cult film Il Secondo Tragico Fantozzi, where the protagonist disses the film after being forced to watch it).

Every screening location had its own personality. Cinema Jolly will be fondly remembered by us for its screenings of post-war Japanese cinema, adrenalin-pumping noir from Iranian director Samuel Khachikian (these films resemble post-independence Indian cinema, with their even doses of action, romance and melodrama), and the films of William K. Howard. Even the lack of air-conditioning at Cinema Jolly helped set the mood for some of the nerve-wracking melodramatic moments in Khachikian’s Żarbat and Tay Garnett’s Destination Unknown.

Once in a while, we would head to the air-conditioned screens of Sala Scorsese and Sala Mastroianni at the Cineteca di Bologna, where the lovely films of Helmut Käutner and Augusto Genina, among others, were shown. Some who were unable to find a seat sat in the corners of the theatre. Watching the silent films of Abel Gance (Mater Dolorosa) and Robert Dinesen (The Maharajah’s Favourite Wife), accompanied by live piano, at Sala Mastroianni was a transcendental experience.

A screening at Sala Scorsese

When the day drew to a close, you had the option of heading to Piazza Maggiore to watch films like Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante and King Vidor’s The Patsy. Or you could stay in Cineteca and watch open-air screenings of restored films like Robert Land’s Innocence—Little Veronica and Genina’s Goodbye Youth, using old projectors with carbon arc lamps (these lamps were used till the early 1970s, when they were eventually replaced by xenon lamps).

Having seen more than 30 films at the festival, I am still struggling to gather my thoughts. But I will always remember setting an alarm and running to catch the 9am screening of Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes And Diamonds at Cinema Arlecchino, or silently shedding tears (more than the film-maker did, during the introduction) at the greatness of Med Hondo’s West Indies, or bringing my luggage to Sala Scorsese to catch Genina’s Lovers Of Midnight before leaving Bologna. And I will always remember the film recommendations given by fellow cinephiles (including that professor) while moving from one screening to another. I will always remember my host introducing me as a cinephile to all his friends, and how I shared the importance of Ritrovato with them, much to their surprise.

I may not be a purist who insists on watching all restored classics on 35mm. I may not be able to explain in detail how film restoration preserves and revives the cinema of the past, making it accessible to a wider audience in this digital era. But I am already counting the days to the next edition of Il Cinema Ritrovato. Maybe I am just a cinephile: nothing more, nothing less.

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