I was unable to attend this year’s Ritrovato; a pity as the programming is often a preview of films that subsequently screen elsewhere and inevitably become highlights of the year. Luckily, Richard was there to report on what he saw he saw.
In the podcast, we discuss the following sections of the festival:The Time Machine: 1923, where films from a century ago get highlighted; The Space Machine section, particularly the Cinema Libero selections, of which Richard was able to see every feature film. We discuss the New Film Foundation Restorations, of which Richard highlights BUSHMAN ( David Schickele, 1981) and TIME OF THE HEATHEN(Peter Kass, 1961) . BUSHMAN will be shown at Bristol’s Cinema Rediscovered this year. Richard also highlights two Iranian films by Bharam Beyzaie, director of DOWNPOUR Like with CHESS IN THE WIND, programmer Ehsan Khoshbakht describes THE STRANGER AND THE FOG and THE BALLAD OF TARA as a holy grail of Iranian Cinema, pre-revolutionary films thought lost and now restored.
Richard touches on some of the restorations he saw: MAN’S CASTLE (Frank Borzage), A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL, CROSS OF IRON, CRY THE BELOVED COUNTRY (Zoltan Korda); MARRIAGE CIRCLE and LADY WINDERMERE’S FAN, the latter with a score by Timothy Brock and shown with a full orchestra; Stella Dallas, with Stephen Horne’s orchestral score and an equally wonderful orchestra.
We discuss the Anna Magnani section; the Rouben Mamoulian section, which Richard views as an opportunity to see the films at their best rather than any revelations; The Michael Powell section, mostly Powell without Pressburger. Powell himself said he didn’t think his reputation would survive many more discoveries of his quota quickies. Has it?
We also discuss being at the festival this year: The pros and cons of seeing films on the Square; the system of advance bookings; the faults and virtues of the introductions; and whether Ritrovato should continue the digital programming it began during COVID.
The overall assessment is that it was a wonderful festival; that the catalogue itself is a tremendous work of scholarship and should be acknowledged as such; and I look forward to once more be present at it next year,
A Western that comes across as quite amiable and genial, funny and cheerful, in spite of dealing with quite dark material. Joel McCrea stars as a saddle tramp who in his own words, at the very start of the film, and in first-person narration, tells us, ‘Earth and sky and a horse…what more could a man want?’ Well that’s all he wants but that is precisely what the narrative will deprive him of.
At the start of the film, he goes visit an old friend of his, a widower with four children who instantly gets killed in an accident after borrowing McCrea’s horse – a rodeo horse who tends to buck at the sound of gunshot — and so our saddle tramp gets saddled with four young boys. In order to feed them, McCrea goes to work in a ranch. But the rancher won’t hire anyone with children so the kids have to hide out in a camp. They are soon joined by a young girl, an orphan who’s run away from her uncle’s because – and it’s as clear as Hollywood film of that era can show – he’s been sexually abusing her. There are other strands to the narrative, the rancher who MaCrea works for is involved in a dispute with his Mexican neighbouring rancher (played by Antonio Moreno, the silent film star) over the theft of cattle; the developing romance between the runaway orphan, who conveniently turns out to be nineteen, and McCrea; all get resolved in the end.
Ehsan Khoshbakht, in his write-up on the film for the Ritrovato catalogue offers several insights into the film: it’s a rare example of first-person voice-over in a Western; it belongs to a small cycle of westerns in which the cowboy’s time in the blissful presence of children chimes with the end of the frontier and the beginning of settlement (3 Godfathers); the way the McCrea’s horse functions in the film as a source of comedy and tragedy.
For me, what makes Saddle Tramp stand-out from a run-of-the mill B Western is how a film full of so much darkness – a death that leaves four children orphaned, an orphan that has to run away from home due to sexual abuse, racial hatreds between whites and Mexicans that blame each other for something caused by someone else; and ultimately the hero’s choice of responsibility and resultant loss of freedom – can all result in something so cheerful, so likeable, so amiable. Therein lies Fregonese’s art. And MaCrea’s, who must surely be amongst the most amiable and genial leading men of the Classic period. How the film’s ending finesses the loss of American culture’s most prized quality –Liberty – and how that’s contextualised with a continued longing for it that puts in tension with sex, education, home, civilisation, the past and the future – all aspects of a pursuit of happiness — and this at the height of the McCarthy era, is worth an essay in itself.
A superb noir, fast-moving, by someone who’s seen and loved all the 30s Warners gangster films; and knows and can deploy every stylistic device:
chase scenes that turn into newspaper headlines:
voice-over montages that focus on the hero and instigate the rationale for a crime:
dream montages that show the sexy lure of what the culture deprives ordinary people of:
We also get flashbacks to childhood, prison escapes, etc. It’s all here but now set in Buenos Aires and the surrounding countryside in Argentina. And much as I love Hollywood, the underside of its imperialism is that it deprived us of many sights and sounds seen here, many films such as this one.
The film is based on two separate real-life events dramatised together: An employee bilking his workplace of half a million pesos and a prison escape. José Moran (Jorge Salcedo) likes the good things in life, nice suits, nightclubs, things and places he can’t afford. He’s in love with a young student who loves him back; they once went around shopping for bedroom sets they’d buy after they got married. But he’s given up now. He’s got a bit of gambling problem, is only receiving 150 of his 250 monthly salary because he’s already paying off advances; money lenders are after him; he can barely afford to support his mother and his younger brother on what he takes home. He’s already seeing his illusions ground down they after day – it’s what killed his father – and once he realises that the maximum sentence for stealing is sixty years and that legally there’s no difference whether you take 1000 pesos are 500, 000, he does the math. It would take him 166 years to earn 500, 000. So what if he has to sacrifice 6 years of prison in order to get it? It’s less than the life the job is robbing him of.
It’s a brilliant logic in the film. But since the film starts with an unsuccessful escape, we also know that our hero’s every attempt to save himself will end in failure. It’s another brilliant element of the film; how the beginning sets up failure in every attempt at escape or survival. Apenas un delincuente is about a non-conformist, a man at odds with the culture around him, who schemes, resists, fails; his life a feverish dreams of a life the culture won’t permit him to have.
The film dynamically sets up its themes. Life in the big city which has everything but not for everybody. Male pride versus family shame. A workplace whose regimentation is filmed not too differently than the prison. The hero sees himself as no better than a slave and is driven by a kind of rage which the film suggests is also a kind of sexual frustration; the good university lawyer who loves him but whom he can’t afford to marry; the provocative dancing girls on display that he doesn’t have money to have. The film gets its title from the last line of the film, José wasn’t a criminal, he was barely a delinquent, an ordinary young man, maybe a bit selfish and impatient, someone who wanted too much too fast. But the implication here is also that the problem is a system that promises much more than it can deliver to so many young men like José. All of this is brilliantly visualised, in angles and shapes that cage and enclose, with tantalising images of the high life, rendered even more alive by being shaped via Jose’s bitter gaze. Though the film does not have a documentary feel — it’s too fast moving for that – it was ostensibly all filmed in real locations; and it does represent and evoke what Buenos Aires was like in that period; and also through the neighbourhoods, rooms, décor; a document of the ways of life available to people then. It’s the intersection of document and exciting noir elements that help make the film great. And great it undeniably is.
Ehsan Khoshbakht writes tellingly in the Ritrovato catalogue: ‘Though American-style gangster films had existed in Argentine cinema as early as 1937, this was not a pastiche but an attack on the idea of economic progress under President Juan Perón….. Apenas un delincuente could only be realised at all because of the interventionist politics of the Perón government. Ironically it was the US that contributed to the end of cinema’s golden age by imposing a politically motivated film-stock embargo, forcing Fregonese back to drift back to the place where he had failed before; this time, in a double irony, to make a film called One Way Street.(pp.262-263)
Part of the cycle of Hugo Fregonese films shown at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2022
If you speak Spanish, this is a very informative review of the film, linking it to Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) and Nueve reinas (Fabián Bielinsky, 2000)
and two discussions from the Filmoteca in Argentina that may also be of interest:
…this one focussing on how the film was restored:
The film itself can be seen on youtube here in a not too bad copy:
This all resulted in many interesting conversations and led me to seek out Ehsan Khoshbakht, the director of Filmfarsi, to find out more about the film and the cinema that is its subject. We discuss the process that led to the film; the Iranian film industry in this period, the extent to which it is transnational, co-productions, the importance of film festivals such as the Moscow Film Festival to Iranian Cinema; the relationship of Filmfarsi to the Iranian New Wave; the melodramatic mode of much of this cinema that crosses across various genres (crime films, musicals, domestic melodrama); we discuss how much of this cinema was lost in the aftermath of the revolution and why this was so. We also discuss the process of recovering the films, which are collectively also a history of Iran and Iranian people in this period. The podcast can be listened to below:
A discussion of Filmfarsi, a film by Ehsan Khoshbakht, on a mode of filmmaking extremely popular in Iran — urban gangster films, melodramas, musicals — set in urban working class milieus, that evoked and challenged the country’s vaunted leap in modernity. IAccording to Ehsan Khoshbakht, the film’s director, ‘Something rare, euphoric and mad was recorded on celluloid: the Iranian way of life after the second world war, with all its paradoxes. Even the sleaziest films became documents. If the majority of key Iranian arthouse films of the 1960s and 1970s were set in villages and rural areas (a tradition continued until after the revolution), filmfarsi was about the thriving cities, which were expanding blindly, thanks to petrodollars’.
t’s very different to the type of cinema Abbas Kiarostami was also doing in this period. It’s a cinema quickly banned after the ’79 revolution, and a cult on VHS. The filmmaker shows the wide range of filmmaking, its transnational perspective, its ritual and fetishistic post -79 consumption, and well evokes why it was so powerful, why it’s been banned and why it is so cherished.
He’s also offered a wonderful introduction in The Guardian, which can be found here.
It begins with: ‘Shortly after the 1979 Iranian revolution, the country’s national newspapers published a joint subpoena, unique in film history. All the key stars of “filmfarsi” – a form of popular cinema that embodied the aspirations and illusions of a modernising society – were summoned to the revolutionary court. The careers of hundreds of actors and directors ended overnight. Unlike the Hollywood blacklisting of the McCarthy era, there was not even the opportunity for a mock hearing. The cinema, seen as emblematic of corruption, “westoxification” and the decadence of the ousted Pahlavi regime, was consigned to oblivion.
Those of you interested in watching the film can follow up bookings here. Many thanks to Wales One World for their superb programme and for the free screenings.
You can see Ehsan Khoshbakht speak to David Gillam on Filmfarsi here: