Film Review: A Cinematic Summer Voyage: TIFF & Il Cinema Ritrovato
June is the most thrilling month. That is, in terms of my annual festival pilgrimage when Romania’s biggest international film fest, TIFF - Transilvania International Film Festival (this year between 9 and 18 June) is followed by the Italian Il Cinema Ritrovato (24 June – 2 July).
Unfolding in Cluj-Napoca, TIFF spotlights international productions, but its main relevance for the local industry is its ample selection of nationally-produced fare. A large number of the past year’s films, whether already premiered or not, are selected for the Romanian Days, making the event the meeting place of the local industry, and a magnet for international guests focusing on Romanian cinema.
Artistic director Mihai Chirilov, in a blunt (and surely not un-scandalous) statement said that the quality of the Romanian films this year was not great. And he does have a point. The most solid fiction was the already multi-awarded To the North, Mihai Mincan’s tense, bleak thriller. The other titles were more of a mixed group. Cristi Puiu’s much-awaited latest, MMXX, episodic and pandemic-set, takes jabs at Covid tests, mask wearing, and compliance with rules (unsurprisingly if one remembers Puiu’s rants against safety measures, and disappointingly predictable), but does have brilliant moments, especially of deadpan humour, is technically flawless, as usual, and packs a punch in its final act. Carried by a large ensemble cast, Tudor Giurgiu’s Libertate/ Freedom, shines a light on a (still) little known episode of the frantic days of the 1989 Revolution, when hundreds were detained in a military base in Sibiu, accused of terrorism. An audience favourite was Ion Borș' Carbon, a Moldova-set and -produced road-movie comedy. Carbon has just premiered nationally, so more on this in the following days. Andrei Tănase’s wry feature debut Tigru/ Day of the Tiger snatched Best Debut, and rightfully so, while Vlad Petri’s poetic Între revoluții/ Between Revolutions was named best Feature.
Another docu-fiction hybrid, Theo Montoya’s autobiographical Anhell 69, a co-production between Columbia, Romania, France and Germany, won the Documentary section "What’s up, Doc?". Dystopian, hypnotic, and carried by a fantastic soundscape, the testimony of living as a young queer person in the Colombian city of Medellín was easily one of the most beautiful films I watched this year, and I hope it will find a Romanian distributor very soon. The same section also included Tizian Büchi’s insightful and enchanting L'îlot / Like an Island (Switzerland). If I could have chosen two winners, this would have been the other. “What’s Up Doc?” has become even more interesting than the features’ competition, and definitely more experimental, selecting many hybrid forms and approaches. The documentaries were generally numerous this year, and reliably engaging, from crowd-pleasing, classical observational ones with sympathetic subjects (an amateur rock band in Dani Sărăcuț’ Planeta Albastă/ The Blue Planet and an unsuccessful football team in Adina Popescu and Iulian Manuel Ghervas’ Vulturii din Țaga/ Eagles from Țaga) to anthropological projects with a long genesis (Cătălina Tesăr and Dana Bunescu’s remarkable, revelatory Pocalul. Despre fii și fiice / The Chalice. Of Sons and Daughters) and definitely the most difficult to review in just a few words, Alexandru Solomon’s performative documentary about the public adoration (or obsession, depending on your perspective) surrounding Arsenie Boca. If you happen to have been here so briefly as to be unfamiliar with the phenomenon, have a look at Google, but beware, you might fall into a rabbit hole of historical facts and religious fervour. Arsenie. Viața de apoi/ Arsenie. An Amazing Afterlife will premiere in autumn and I will dedicate more space to it then.
The short film competition was more memorable than in the past years, working across various genres and techniques. I cannot remember the last time a full cinema screamed with laughter as they did watching Alexandra Diaconu’s doc Toate Neamurile/ Whole Family.
Other treasures were in the homage or retrospective sections, always reliable, from the legendary beauty of Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris/ The Contempt to Sidney Lumet’s perfect drama Running on Empty, or hidden in the Nordic focus, like Anders Emblem’s precise and contained yet endearing A Human Position.
A completely different beast is Il Cinema Ritrovato. A festival dedicated to recovered and restored film from around the world, and thus rediscovered ("ritrovato"), it is hosted by the northern Italian town of Bologna, home of the Cineteca di Bologna and L’Immagine Ritrovata, a major lab for film restoration.
Romanian films were not represented in the past years, at least to my knowledge. The closest Romanian reference this year was director Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Beyond the Hills) introducing Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il grido/ The Cry in the cinema. Several early Romanian films were restored and released recently (Manasse, Independența României), so I hope more will follow, and also travel to Italy. The reasons are manifold and I lack space here to list them, but am planning on following up with a feature on local archival material and its preservation.
Bologna is not just particular because of its niche character, it is also an alternative to the now-established film event when you strip away various competitions, red carpets, side events, receptions etc. This is pure homage to cinema, pure and simple, no frills or distractions, and always attentive to highlight world cinema, go beyond a canonical Western fare. All this is more than enough for the faithful audiences to return for decades. And the joy is infectious.
The traditional homages to directors and actors featured Armenian-American director Rouben Mamoulian, whose Love Me Tonight is one of the most perfect comedies I have ever seen, and Italian actress Anna Magnani, described so often as a "force of nature", and cliché be damned, it is most fitting. She is sublime and larger-than-life in Luchino Visconti’s Bellissima. Italian films are always highlighted, and what a lovely surprise to watch Michelangelo Frammartino’s debut Il Dono/ The Gift, restored after 20 years. Frammartino is a festival darling who has directed three features so far, all of them wondrous observations of life in rural Italy, with a fictional structure, mesmerising and often very funny.
Another one of my favourites included Kon Ichikawa’s 1956 Biruma no tategoto/ The Burmese Harp, lyrical, humanist, the most gentle of anti-war films. I was not familiar with the Japanese director’s work, what a revelation. Just like Syrian director Muhammad Malas’ poetic, autobiographical drama Ahlam al-Medina/ Dreams of the City (1984). I was familiar with French Director Claude Sautet, but not with his debut, a great hard-boiled gangster pic, Classe tous risques/ The Big Risk. As I was with British directing duo Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell, known for their epic, gorgeous Technicolour films. Rewatching Black Narcissus, one of the most beautiful films ever made, on a big screen in the main historic square, with thousands of people, was such an emotional moment. No better setting for a film set in a nuns’ convent in the Himalayas (shot in a studio but looking mighty impressive) towards the end of the British rule in India, where crises erupt with a force as powerful as the local wind. The plot might sound like the stuff of juicy B movies, but Black Narcissus is gorgeous, thoughtful, and most of all easy to catch on DVD or arthouse streaming platforms, much easier than some of the other films shown, hence my attempt to sell it properly here. I was not familiar, however, with Michael Powell’s films before he was the creative half in Powell & Pressburger, such ingenious, versatile stuff. It helped that he was married to Thelma Schoonmaker, who introduced his work with great eloquence and tenderness. Her name might ring a bell for Martin Scorsese fans, she has edited his films for decades. Basically generations of films buffs in awe. Such is the power of Bologna.
By Ioana Moldovan, film columnist: email@example.com
Picture info & credit: open-air screening of Luchino Visconti’s Bellissima, credit of Il Cinema Ritrovato, © Margherita Caprilli & Lorenzo Burlando