The night that I arrived in Bologna for the thirty-fifth edition of Il Cinema Ritrovato, I attended an outdoor screening in the Piazza Maggiore, which the festival’s organizers describe without much hyperbole as “the most magnificent cinema in the world.” At dusk, the heat was ebbing and the towers, domes, and battlements darkening against a sky the color of lemon gelato. I soaked up the realization that I was there—after so many interminable months of holing up, staring at my computer or my television under the siege of the coronavirus, I was somewhere else. Then the plaintive wail of bagpipes pierced the hum of the audience, as musicians playing wild, pure, full-throated Northern Italian folk music strolled through the crowd. I was somewhere.
The music formed a perfect overture to an evening that opened with Omelia contadina (Peasant Homily, 2020), a short film by Alice Rohrwacher and the photographer JR, a staged “funeral” for peasant farming, using JR’s signature monumental photographs of ordinary people. Maybe I was softened up by my exhaustion, after the red-eye from New York and a long day of airports, trains, and movie screenings, but I had a lump in my throat watching this solemn eulogy for human-scale stewardship of a biodiverse landscape overtaken by profit-driven industrial monoculture. In my sentimental state, I saw an allegory for Il Cinema Ritrovato itself, a festival that champions the long and diverse history of film, the painstaking work of film restorers and archivists, and the experience of watching movies together in theaters—even if we have to wear masks and sit apart.
The theme of peasant life recurred throughout the week, starting with the opening night’s feature, Alberto Lattuada’s sweeping and earthy Il mulino del Po
(The Mill on the Po,
1949). The film traces the turbulent currents in a rural community at a moment when mechanization and social changes are just starting to weaken traditional ways; a pair of young lovers is tragically caught in the middle of bitter conflicts between tenant farmers, land owners, and stubbornly independent millers who live on floating grain mills. Plunging into the river, marshes, wheat fields, and crowds surging in confrontation or revelry, this is cinema of exceptionally vivid physicality and organic flow; it never looks like a period piece or feels like a political tract. It does not romanticize peasants, even when village women bravely stand up to soldiers trying to break their agricultural strike; but the film’s rootedness and clarity made me think about Carlo Levi’s definition of a peasant in Christ Stopped at Eboli,
which is what we should all be: “Anyone who does things, loves it, and asks nothing more; everyone who produces.”
During the pandemic lockdown, movies were how most of us traveled. Even now that I was on a real trip—and as my pleasure at being in Bologna underscored my experience of films, the way the deafening buzz of cicadas pulsed through the walls of some theaters, droning beneath the soundtracks—I found myself noticing the different ways that films create a sense of place and movement through space, how they make the audience, in scholar Giuliana Bruno’s wonderful phrasing, not voyeurs but voyageurs.