No Pordenone drop-off speaks volumes about its silent strength

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PORDENONE, Italy -- While some of the world's proudest film festivals tremble under the economic lash that has robbed them of sponsorship and public, there is one that hasn't skipped a beat: the timeless Pordenone Silent Film Festival, which celebrated its 28th year Oct. 3-10, attracting the same die-hard audiences as ever before. It is considered the year's principal rendezvous for film archivists, who come from Los Angeles, Peru, South Africa and New Zealand to this small town in northern Italy to watch top-quality restorations screened with live music.

"There are approximately 900 people who come to Pordenone," fest director David Robinson says. "Maybe one or two didn't come this year, but we certainly didn't feel the difference. Nothing will stop these people from getting to the silent movies."

Robinson, a veteran British film critic, found his mission when he took over the fest 12 years ago and saw "a sea of gray hair" in the audience. Determined to renew the public of silent films, he began a project called Collegium, which sponsors under-30 film historians, students and critics.

For sheer importance, Pordenone trumps other silent-cinema gatherings such as Bologna's Cinema Ritrovato, Norway's Tromso, Amsterdam's Filmmuseum Biennale and the British Silent Film Festival.

The secret of its popularity probably lies in the musical accompaniment that brings bigger-than-life images of Rudolph Valentino, John Gilbert and Mae Murray to life. This year, it ranged from Maud Nelissen's original orchestral score to Erich Von Stroheim's astonishingly fresh "The Merry Widow" to clarinet solos and even the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.

By all accounts, this was a strong year for the fest. "There was a good balance between films geared to the archivist and the academic and those that please all of us," says film critic Jay Weissberg, who programmed a section on British detectives called Sherlock and Beyond.

Although aimed at the specialist, Robinson says the films were "popular beyond all belief" thanks to their strong sense of narrative and character. Another amusing sidebar selected by historian Paolo Cherchi Usai was the Canon Revisited, which scrutinized such classics as Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" and Paul Wegener's "Der Golem," finding them still quite worth spending an afternoon at the movies with.
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