'Sperduti nel buio': Bologna Review
A documentary about the search of a missing Italian silent movie from 1914 evolves into a look at Italian history and how film conservation works.
A film historian traveling around Europe to look for a long-disappeared film, veteran filmmakers and actors reflecting on their work in the tail-end of the second world war – on paper, Sperduti nel buio appears to be quite a prosaic and specialist-driven premise. Against the odds, cinematographer-director Lorenzo Pezzano has conjured a documentary which is engaging for cinephiles and interesting for the casual movie-goer: it's a piece which would satisfy the interest in film buffs about the search for lost movies, and a clarion call for more support to be dedicated to film research and conservation.
It's perhaps apt that Sperduti nel buio – which has already unspooled at the Padova andVeneto film festivals – is to land at Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna's annual week-long showcase of restored and rediscovered films from yesteryear. Combining revealing anecdotes from engaging interviewees, engaging camerawork which makes springs film archives alive and also a splattering of animation here and there, Pezzano has more than made up for the fact that the film at the central of the documentary's quest does not appear at all.
The film in question is Nino Martoglio's 1914 silent movie also titled Sperduti nel buio (or in English, Lost in the Dark). An adaptation of Roberto Bracco's play from even further back in time – 1901, to be exact – the film about a disowned young girl and the blind man raising her in a slum is shot mostly on location and has been regarded as a source of inspiration for neo-realist filmmakers such as Roberto Rosselini and Luchino Visconti. (It is also worthy of note the similarities between this narrative and Charlie Chaplin'stramp-and-gamine Modern Times.)
But its mythical standing in the history of Italian cinema was not just down to its aesthetics, but also the way it vanished from view. Legend had it that the single existing copy of the film was lost in 1943 as the German army, then occupying Italy as the Allies landed in Sicily, attempted to transport the film out of Rome – a move mirroring that of the directors and actors to take part in film productions launched by Benito Mussolini's Nazi-controlled puppet regime in northern Italy, as the beleaguered fascist leader sees cinema as "the strongest weapon" in the war he has irretrievably lost.
It's in this aspect of the film's legacy that Perazzo's documentary focuses on. The content ofMartoglio's film is barely discussed in the film; even when it is, it's seen as how its gritty, realistic look at life runs against the state-endorsed "white-telephone" melodramas which permeated Italian theatres during Mussolini's rule. Rather, Perrazo (and his co-writer Federico Fava) locates the filmmakers forced to relocate to Venice in 1943 and has them explain what the circumstances were like – what got made (or, rather more often, not), and how the move affected the already existent studios in the lagoon city.
But the star in the documentary is surely academic Denis Lotti, the Padova University professor travelling around Italy and then onwards to Vienna, Berlin and even Moscow in order to track down what actually happened to the reels of Martoglio's film – a speculated take of its fate is brought to the screen through animated sequences.
Gradually, the viewer realizes the 1914 Sperduti is just a Macguffin here; Lotti's pursuit reveals the state and operations of film institutions like the Deutsche Kinemathek, the Austrian Film Museum or Russia's Gosfilmofond, but also how scholars and conservationists go about locating lost films in this supposedly all-accessible, digital age.
As Lotti eventually happens on an entirely different discovery on the final destination of his Europe-trotting trip, his excitement is palpable – an effect which this documentary has managed to generate, about films remaining an inspiring and invigorating medium worthy of attention of so many levels beyond mere entertainment.
Venue: Il Cinema Ritrovato Festival, Bologna
Production companies: Tunastudio, Rai Cinema
Director: Lorenzo Pezzano
Screenwriters: Federico Fava, Lorenzo Pezzano
Director of photography: Lorenzo Pezzano
Editors: Francesco Marotta
Music: Matteo Bordin, Matteo Bolzonello
No rating; 75 minutes