A Language of Their Own

Interntional Silent Film Festival

Pordenone, Italy

For sixteen years now, the International Silent Film Festival (Giornate del Cinema Muto) has been unearthing buried treasures from all around the world—this year’s finds were from China, reflecting a crucial period in that country’s history. Virtually every major restorer, archivist, or film historian of the movies’ first three decades converges in October on Pordenone, a prosperous town in Friuli that has a beautiful medieval core.

Pordenone is forty-five miles north of the more expectable place, Venice. But devotees of the conference are very loyal to its history in this region. It had its origins in a real-life episode that seems too good to be true, like an excerpt from Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels, where people discover the uses of film laughter in adversity. The Friuli earthquake of 1976 hit the town of Spilembergo particularly hard. People were living in makeshift gathering places. Film clubs from neighboring towns, including Pordenone, drew on their pool of old silent comedies—Sennett, Chaplin, Keaton—to entertain and distract the earthquake’s victims.

A realization that there were some people intensely interested in silent film, and knowledgeable about it, led to an annual event that rapidly escalated in its ambitions and in the response from scholars who were called on to contribute their knowledge and curatorial expertise. All old films, but especially those from the earliest years of cinema, are endangered—lost, crumbling, rotting, needing transfer to more stable formats. Those dedicated to finding and saving these films need allies, and they now have a common center and clearinghouse for their efforts. The festival has a scholarly publishing series—catalogs, monographs, and its own annual journal, Griffithiana.

The year 1976 was not the first time Pordenone had performed a service for Spilembergo. The painter Pordenone (Antonio de’ Sacchis, always known by the name of his home town) supplied Spilembergo with its principal artistic treasure in 1524—painted panels for the large organ in the town’s main church. Closed, the panels show a Virgin Mary spiraling upward, at her Assumption, in a rocket fume of angels. Opened, the panels show two scenes of men falling—Simon Magus plunging from a tower and Saint Paul spun around at his conversion and sliding backward down the neck of his horse. The interplay of these vigorous soaring and plunging figures seems already to have the spirit of cinema, and the action of Paul, who strikes back at God’s light with the battle-axe he carries, made me think of an entry in this year’s Griffithiana. Yuri Tsivian, writing about Griffith’s Broken Blossoms, quotes a claim that “no one will ever be able to account for the effect of the gesture with which the pugilistic father, as he is being shot, draws back his arm as if to strike back his very death.”

The town Pordenone itself took its enduring shape from a disaster. After a consuming fire in 1318, the town’s one main street was lined on both sides …

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