Friday 30 December 2016

On DVD - Summer viewing - Restored Italian classics from 1970 - IL CONFORMISTA, UOMINI CONTRO

The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, Italy, 1970)
Back in 2011, when in Rome, I bought a copy of the then newly-released Raro Video edition of the restored version of The Conformist. Since then the film has also been widely released on Blu-ray. The copy went on to the shelf and has just, finally, come out. My viewings of the film over the last four plus decades started with its Australian premiere at the Sydney Film Festival and have included further viewings of the copy shown at the SFF during its later commercial release and then on several occasions on  SBS and on earlier DVD editions.

Nothing I've seen in the past is remotely as good as the restoration seen on the Raro Video edition. The work was  supervised by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. The restoration work was carried out by Cineteca di Bologna (Italy). For the first time, the grainy look, particularly in dark interiors like the opening hotel room scene, the frolics on the train to Paris and Professor Quaglio's Parisian apartment, has been eliminated. The images are sharp. The skin tones of the actors are particularly clear and there is no bias to what in previous copies looked like over-use of orange filters most notably at the guingette scene in Paris. In all it is another film that stands as a tribute to the deft arts practised by the team at the Cineteca di Bologna's L'imagine Ritrovato. The Blu-ray is still available on Amazon. 

Trintignant improvises, The Conformist
The great addition to be found on the disc is a fifty seven minute essay by Adriano Apra which covers a lot of territory. Most notably, after about seven minutes background on Bertolucci's career up until The Conformist, the essay incorporates segments from a long interview with Bertolucci, probably about half an hour all up, in which he takes us through the entire production process from the moment of discovering the Moravia novel, the serendipitous offer from Paramount to make a movie, any movie, his decision to write the script without a collaborator, the assembly of the production team, the casting, the editing, the on-set improvisation especially by Jean-Louis Trintignant, and, crucially the creation of the meaning of it all.  Bertolucci is an especially articulate explainer of his work - cinephiliac references to earlier eras of film-making flow out, he quotes Roland Barthes and draws on his experience of psychoanalysis. His explanation of the ending of the film is as lucid as any critical appreciation I've read. If I had to say, I would say it is the best interview with a director about his film that I have ever seen. The fact that he was doing it forty years after making the movie fills you with a certain awe.

Dominique Sanda, Stefania Sandrelli, Guinguette scene, The Conformist
(Bertolucci at first approached Brigitte Bardot to play the
part of the Professor's wife)
Apra's essay doesn't confine itself to getting Bertolucci down pat. He breaks away on several occasions to provide us with several pieces of critical, and by way of critical, mathematical analysis, pie charts, flow charts and more. Like Dr Bordwell he measures the number and length of shots, comparing this element with Bertolucci's other films and relating it to the pacing of this movie. He also has a chart with columns setting out the intricate construction of the narrative, the cutting to flashback, of the elements where past and present are linked. Brilliant stuff. This essay is subtitled into English and was produced for the release of the restoration in 2011. 

So I waited five years....

UOMINI CONTRO (MANY WARS AGO) (Francesco Rosi, Italy, 1970)
in the same year as The Conformist, Franceso Rosi embarked upon a most ambitious venture. He claims to have put a million lire of his own money into the production and to have lost it all. The film was Uomini Contro/Many Wars Ago, an adaptation of a war time diary by Emilio Lussu titled, in English at least, "A Year on the Plateau". It records a WW1 story of a winter spent in battle in the mountains between Italy and Austria and the attempts by a rag tag and demoralised Italian force to take an Austrian stronghold, previously held by Italian forces. Needless to say the Italian side on which the film focuses is riddled with pomposity, stupidity and arrogance on the part of the top officers and fear, loathing, rebellion, refusal to fight and outright cowardice on the part of the troops forced to spend a brutal winter in trenches in between utterly futile attempts to attack the stronghold. These attacks slowly devolve down to sporadic efforts to send out troops armed with wirecutters with a view to them cutting through barbed wire to ready a path for attack. No one comes back alive. When faced with a loss of enthusiasm the officers take to employing the policy of 'decimation' - randomly nominating one in every ten men to be executed. The floggings will continue until morale improves. It's a film in the great tradition of All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory, Gallipoli and King and Country  to name just a few of the many movies devoted to similar WW1 themes. However, its impressionistic rendition of the battle scenes and the perpetually grim narrative make it even harder to stomach than the others mentioned.

Rosi was very keen to make it. He wanted something substantial, with gravitas and heavy meaning after doing the handsome big budget Sophia Loren/Omar Sharif starring fairy tale More Than a Miracle. He cobbled together deals all over the place including his own investment and filmed it all in Yugoslavia using the Yuglosav army as a cheap source of extras for the crowd and battle scenes. The film used a Yugoslav company as co-producer. The film flopped and as is the way with outcasts in the cinema, the original negative was lost. 

The disc published by Minerva in Italy has extensive supporting material all translated into English. Not all of this is presented in exemplary fashion despite significant effort. The quite lengthy dual language booklet doesn't have page numbers or a publication date, nor does the DVD cover. Details, details. The copy presented on the disc is exceptional given the circumstances and it recaptures the exquisite nature of Pasqualino De Santis's photography which, according to the interview with Rosi offered as an extra employed a lot of natural light effects particularly in the night battle scenes. 

Rosi's rendition of the battle scenes is impressionistic though as per usual the mise-en-sene doesn't spare you that gut wrenching feeling you get when scenes involve sending young men over the top to their inevitable death. 

There is no date for the recording of the interview with Rosi (Details!, Details!) but he looks old so you have to assume it took place somewhere round the time that the restoration was done and the DVD published. Rosi is credited for his 'collaboration' on the digital restoration. The booklet has a short note by Curator of the Italian National Film Archive Sergio Toffetti which is worth repeating: The copy...was reprinted at Cinecitta laboratories from a reversal belonging to the Archive. As the original negative has been lost, a duplicate negative was made according to an obsolete technical process which allows the original negative to be printed directly onto reversal film. The resulting film - the reversal - has a reasonably high level of definition, although some fluctuations of colour and dominant doubles tend to alter the original chromatics. The original tone and density of the colour may eventually be recovered using digital modern techniques."

Rosi himself is as impassioned about his subject as when he made the film in a mid-career gamble that cost him money and opportunity. He explains his interest as something that might be seen as a universal message and it has to be said if you want a picture of how grim fighting wars can be for poor farmers who joined or were shanghaied into the ludicrous events of WW1 and never got to go home then this it. 

A couple of years later Rosi had recovered from the commercial debacle and started a streak of successful productions - The Mattei Affair (1972), Lucky Luciano (1973), Illustrious Corpses (1975), Christ Stopped at Eboli (1979), Three Brothers (1981), and Carmen (1984). They represent a rarely repeated run that kept his name at the forefront of both quality European film-making and a continuation of Italy's primary realist tradition of film-making for a decade or more.

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