Logging on to the festival website, there is an immediate display of the incredible art that developed so quickly in the silent era. The scene is a crowded bar and the camera skims its way across six marble table-tops. There are two people at each table and the camera slides smoothly between them. A lesbian strokes her girlfriend’s cheek. A furious woman throws a glass of drink into a man’s face. A sophisticated woman hands a man – a gigolo? – some money. A couple cast furtive glances. Finally, the camera comes to rest right in front of a drunken soldier’s face, whereupon a waiter’s hand appears over his shoulder to refill his glass with champagne.

It is a superb sequence, full of detail – constant carousing amidst cigarette smoke, fountains, potted plants – and it is shot in beautiful period sepia. If only the website had troubled to tell us the film’s name!

Still, we do find the history of the festival: though it was not to acquire its definitive name and identity until the following year, the Giornate del Cinema Muto (Pordenone Silent Film Festival) can date its first edition to 9 to 11 September 1982, when Cinemazero film club presented the Cineteca del Friuli’s collection of the films of Max Linder, in the theatre of the Centro Studi di Pordenone.

With the title "Le roi du rire: the origins of comic cinema", the collaborative effort might have come and gone as a one-off event. But among the fewer than ten guests from outside the region was the dean of Italian film historians, Davide Turconi. As they sat all together at a table, he said, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, "Fine. Next year we will do Mack Sennett." And everyone, quite naturally, concurred.

Turconi was director of the Giornate until 1989 and remained a member of the directive board until 1998. From 1999 until his death in 2005 he was Honorary President of the festival. From the edition of 1997 and for 19 years the festival was directed by English cinema critic and historian David Robinson. Since 2016 the director has been film critic Jay Weissberg.

Turconi, it is relevant to point out, was born in 1911 as the silent film era approached its height, and the other two men to carry the flag were born in 1930 (Robinson), just as silent films had been killed off by sound, and 1965 (Weissberg).

Le Giornate del cinema muto, referred to in English as Pordenone Silent Film Festival, is said to be the first, largest and most important international festival dedicated to silent film, and is in the list of the top 50 unmissable film festivals in the world, according to Variety magazine. The festival is run by a non-profit association and is dedicated to the preservation, diffusion and study of the first thirty years of cinema.

The first retrospective, focusing on French comedian Max Linder, was organised as a true labour of love, with a shoestring budget and an audience of eight patrons. Today, the screenings are attended by several hundreds of people from across the world, ranging from academics, archivists and critics to private enthusiasts and collectors, who gather for a weekly marathon of screenings. Intertitles are translated into Italian and/or English with electronic subtitling.

# Director Abel Gance's Napoléon, 1927

Beginning in 1985, for 14 years the festival resided in the Cinema Verdi in Pordenone, a picture palace from the great post-Second World War era of Italian cinema-going. But the local authorities decided to demolish the Verdi, and in 1999 the Giornate moved to the Teatro Zancanaro in Sacile, 15 kilometres from Pordenone. This is a well-equipped modern auditorium behind the older facade of a theatre that has been screening films since 1911. In October 2007 the festival moved back to Pordenone and to the new Verdi theatre.

Since its inception, the Pordenone Silent Film Festival has covered all aspects of early film history, ranging from the classical Hollywood cinema to avant-garde and animation. "These gatherings," write Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell in "Film History: An Introduction", "have revolutionised the study of silent cinema ... The Silent Film Festival has helped emphasise how crucial the preservation and availability of early films are to our knowledge of cinema history."

Over the years, the festival has stimulated and assisted the process of recovering and restoring the film heritage, leading to lost films being rediscovered, orphan reels being identified, and chance personal encounters resulting in restoration projects.

As in the silent film eras, musicians – most often a pianist, sometimes an accordionist, violinist, percussionist or even an orchestra – play improvised, original or contemporary accompaniment to the films. The musicians give daily lessons for aspiring silent film accompanists. Another annual festival feature is the Collegium, where twelve young people sit down with groups of experts in various fields of the study and techniques of film history and conservation. An annual prize, the Jean Mitry Award, is given to scholars and archivists in recognition of their work in preserving, interpreting and promoting the silent film heritage. The festival also has produced books, programs and brochures, many of which are regarded as basic reference works.

The town of Pordenone is some 100 kilometres on from Trieste and has many mansions and palaces, in particular along the ancient "Greater Contrada", today Corso Vittorio Emanuele II. It is described as a wonderful example of Venetian porticoes and has been called by some the small "waterless Grand Canal".

Website: http://www.giornatedelcinemamuto.it/


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