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Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Bologna Diary (8) - A stunning surprise. Richard Wright takes the lead in a film adaptation of Native Lang's Destiny

Santa Sangre. Directed by Pierre Chenab, Argentina, 1950, 104 minutes. Screened on 35mm print at Bologna Cinema Ritrovato. Introduced by Edgardo Cozarinsky and Fernando Martin Pena.

It's getting hard to keep up with the Bologna Cinema Ritrovato menu so some edited highlights.

The story of how a film version came to be made of Richard Wright's now classic novel of underclass black lives in Chicago is too complex to tell here. Suffice to say the 1940 novel was adapted in 1950 by French director Pierre Chenal. The film was made in Argentina, with just some exterior shots of the city added. After drop outs Richard Wright himself was cast as the lead character, an autobiographically based personage, Bigger Thomas. The film was made in English. It attracted little attention at the box office and was cut for its limited American release. A surviving 16mm print unearthed in recent years has provided the basis of the restoration.

Introduced by Edgardo Cozarinsky, the co-curator of the remarkable selection dubbed as an alternate history of Argentinian cinema, the point was made that this may be the only time ever that the author of a novel had taken the lead, (here playing a version of himself) in a movie adaptation of his book. (Bologna's rampant cinephilia soon had that matter resolved when from the floor it was mentioned that Mickey Spillane had performed a similar task in The Girl Hunters sometime in the early 60s.)

Chenal's film is quite a show in its settings in the back blocks of the down at heel black areas of Chicago. The sets, a touch of expressionism in both setting and lighting, emphasise the grim reality of   Afro-American youth with no prospects except criminal endeavour. Bigger escapes this for awhile when he gets a job as a chauffeur to a liberal white couple (she's blind!) but then gets into trouble trying to manage the daughter of the household played by US import Jean Wallace. Accidental death sends Bigger on the run and the inevitable contretemps with the police.

Then the film goes on to his trial and the complications that ensue as white justice tries to deal with him fairly...

Wright proves most adept as an actor. Chenal's mise-en-scene is quite superb and the effort made by the restorers has paid off handsomely. You would like to think that the film, which re-premiered at Mar Del Plata FF back in 2015 might now finally have a popular life of its own and that festival directors especially will be knocking on the door.

An earlier DVD cover
Also back from the dead of b&w 16mm prints is Fritz Lang's Der Mude Tod/Destiny  made in 1921 and now restored by the F W Murnau Institute after an extraordinary search for materials. Beautifully tinted and on this occasion accompanied live on piano by Stephen Horne and drums by an anonymous accompanist, the screening was a triumph and a vindication of the art and the patience of those who do these things for the sheer love of cinema....

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