Volume 19 Issue 50 | April 27 - May 3, 2007

A Downtown Express Special Supplement

Tribeca Film Festival 2007

Cinda Firestone’s “Attica” (1974) is a trenchant documentary depicting the conditions and events that led up to the 1971 prison rebellion, which resulted in the death of 43 people.

Resurrecting forgotten films

By Leonard L. Quart

One of this year’s most unique sections of the Tribeca Film Festival, now in its sixth season, is the Restored/Rediscovered segment curated by the Festival’s cinematically knowledgeable and sophisticated Executive Director, Peter Scarlet. The brand-new series includes newly restored, preserved and often little-known films from the world’s film archives.

Scarlet believes “that films never age,” and that films made many years ago are often deeply connected to and help shape films completed years later. He illustrated his point by telling me that two years ago the festival screened the Sicilian Vittorio De Seta’s powerful, first feature length film, “Bandits of Orgosolo” (1960). De Seta is a director of documentaries on the everyday life of Sicily’s poorest workers, and his influence could be gleaned in the work of American cult director Monte Hellman’s “Ride the Whirlwind” — a ’60s western starring Jack Nicholson.

For Scarlet the purpose of this section is to recover significant pieces of cinematic history by giving audiences a chance to see films that were either never given proper distribution, or disappeared from view, and are almost never available on video.

The films being shown this year range from: Cinda Firestone’s “Attica” (1974) — a trenchant documentary depicting the abuses of power, corruption and events that led up to the 1971 prison rebellion, which ended with the death of 43 people, to “The Pelican” (1973), a film directed by Gerard Blain (an actor dubbed “the French James Dean”). Blain’s film, his masterpiece, deals with parental love and obsession, and was shot in an austere style that Scarlet characterizes as “Bresson without God.” Like all of Blain’s work, it was never shown in the U.S.

Courtesy Tribeca Film Festival

“The Pelican,” (1973) directed by Gerard Blain (a.k.a. “the French James Dean”), deals with parental love and obsession, and makes its U.S. premiere at Tribeca.

Other films being shown include a Mexican film, “Autumn Days” (1962), directed by Roberto Gavaldon, whose cinematographer was Gabriel Figueroa, a master of eloquent shadows and stark contrast between shade and light (e.g., Buñuel’s “Los Olvidados” and Ford’s “The Fugitive”). And two Russian films — “The Forty-First” and “The Letter That Was Never Sent” — highlight the brilliant, virtuosic cinematography of Sergei Urusevsky, whose soaring camera dazzled in “I Am Cuba” and “The Cranes Are Flying.”

“The Forty-First,” directed by Grigori Chukhrai, was a post-Thaw film released in 1957, focusing on a Red Army detachment trapped and dying in the sands near the Aral Sea during the Red and White Civil War. What’s striking about the film are its dramatic long shots and vivid colors that evoke the sea, sand and sky in startling ways, and frame its characters as they struggle with the elements. The film’s dazzling images, however, overpower its narrative, which centers on a predictable love affair between opposites: a stunningly handsome, blonde, blue-eyed White officer prisoner (viewed sympathetically); and his militantly revolutionary, pretty female guard, who believes in “the proletariat” and is also an expert shot. What is also of some interest is the film’s willingness to suggest that the emotional and romantic needs of the individual may be as or more significant than adhering to an ideology or taking sides in a war — something no film in Stalin’s day would have ever attempted to convey.

Peter Scarlet also recommends taking a look at Farokh Ghaffary’s “Night of the Hunchback” (1965), an Iranian dark comedy that has long remained unseen in the West. Most Iranian directors were then knocking out melodramatic tearjerkers, so when “Hunchback” came out Iranian critics treated it as as an event of major significance. One critic was so moved that he claimed it marked “the birth of the Iranian cinema.”

As Tribeca’s Film Festival’s audience continues to grow, the festival itself is also becoming increasingly adventurous, and the Restored/Rediscovered section is a prime example of its cinematically imaginative programming.

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