I only saw two longer films on the fifth day of the Giornate, simply because they were collectively six hours (!) long. I started my morning with a quick walk around the city (took a new route today!), before it was time for the 2-hour long Pan Tadeusz (1929), a film I picked out because a) it was a part of the Polish program and b) it was directed by Ryszard Ordýnski, the same director of the film I still can’t shut up about, Janko the Musician (1930).
Pan Tadeusz was not an easy film to get into, as someone who was not familiar with Polish literature. While the others had themes that were more universally accessible, this was based off of a 1834 poem by Adam Mickiewicz, considered one of the last great epic poems in European literature and a national treasure in Poland. It is a poem familiar to most Poles because it is taught in schools, and is considered a part of their national identity, which is what the film obviously wanted to build on. The release of film- which at the time had what was regarded as a very big budget- was considered a historical event.
Notice how I am sort of avoiding talking about what the film is about. Watching the film itself didn’t really offer me too many clues, as it is very stylistic and not terribly interested in giving a clear filmic narrative. Rather, it remains very faithful to its original text, in that it quotes the poem in passages directly, and with painstaking effort tried to recreate famous wood engravings and illustration that are somehow linked to the poem – through its mise-en-scene.
What the story boils down to though, is a tale of two rival noble families living in what used to be Poland-Lithuania from 1569 to 1795 until it was divided into three partitions by Russia, Prussia and Austria. Tadeusz from one of the noble families finds love in Zosia in the other. At the same time, there is a sudden revolt in the Russian partition.
While the new, longer restoration of Pan Tadeusz is still not a complete version, it is well worth seeing just to see a very unique, different kind of film, and if you read the epic poem too, I’m sure you will get even more out of it. While I could’ve taken more from the experience (if I had been more prepared for it), it did at least make it even more obvious that pre-war Polish film was very varied. And like several of the others, it was immensely beautiful to behold.
The big event of the day was obviously the almost four-hour long French adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo; Monte Cristo (Henri Fescourt, 1929). There was quite a lot of hype before the screening naturally because of the length (a hot topic of conversation) and that this was a big production back in the day. But also because Henri Fescourt’s six-hour long film version of Les Misérables was screened last year, and almost everyone I talked to at Pordenone at that time thought that it was the highlight of the whole festival. Certainly then, Henri Fescourt had a lot to live up to with another major adaptation by a major work. Really, anything less than the best ever film adaptation of Dumas’ book would be disappointing.
It didn’t do well in its time. Fairly soon after its release it had been forgotten and as decades past it had fallen into the depth of obscurity and had become more of a myth and legend as no prints were thought to have survived. This all changed in the 1990s, when almost complete prints were found in Eastern European archives. Restoration then began in 1999, and only in 2015 was the restored film given its new premiere in San Francisco. The restored print of the film is certainly no lazy piece of work. The quality of it is rather amazing, in that while watching it, you don’t really notice how bad it once used to be – despite the film being rather slow for my taste in the first half.
By the last two hours or so however, I was completely immersed in the film. The humor of Alexandre Dumas’ writing came through much more clearly in the latter half, and all the preambulatory plot of the first two hours came to very satisfying conclusions. Elegant large set-pieces, wonderfully gratuitous and scenic shots of ships, coupled with intriguing and inventive ways of using the moving camera – it was a joy to behold. Jean Angelo, a true star of French silent film also makes a really great Edmond Dantès. While I’m not able to compare this to Les misèrables which everybody raved about, Monte Cristo certainly met my loftier expectations for a Dumas adaptation and a film of an epic length.