SIFF’s program notes states that The Night of Counting the Years (1969, Egypt), directed by Chadi Abdel Salam, is “universally recognized as one of the greatest Egyptian films ever made,” a statement that isn’t quite accurate. I’m not refering to the “greatest” part of that statement, just that it is “universally recognized” for anything.
While it is indeed considered an Egyptian cinema masterwork by those with some expertise in the field, this is not a film that has been close to universally seen, which makes its appearance here all the more notable. All but unavailable for years (I had the good fortune to see a 16mm print at the Seattle Arab Film Festival in 2000, which even faded and worn communicated the great power of the film), a new restoration was undertaken in conjunction with the international offshoot of The Film Foundation founded by Martin Scorsese and a high-quality DCP digital print was shown at SIFF. (Given some of the issues with digital presentation at the festival this year, I am pleased to report that this was a stellar screening; any weaknesses in the image quality were clearly those of the original film materials.)
The story is inspired by a real-life incident of an isolated mountain tribe in the late 19th century that was secretly selling off ancient artifacts from the tombs of the Pharaohs, specifically a cache of mummies hidden in the mountain caves to hide them from looters, which the government discovers after the recovery of one of the treasures. The drama ostensibly sets the government against the insular tribe, where the elders justify the looting of its own culture to sustain the people (as well as enrich themselves), but it’s the reaction of the young men to this tribal secret that fires the film. They are appalled at the desecration of their ancestors and their refusal to be a part of it marks them as enemies of the tribe. Not an ideal situation in such an insular culture.
Decades of attending film festivals bring a lot of memories. Obviously, it’s a thrill to encounter new films that go on to challenge or captivate audiences in general release. But there’s another kind of encounter that’s at least as exciting and valuable, and can leave as deep a mark: the festival showcasing of a vintage film that’s been lost, or lain neglected, or not made available in this country, or recently been restored to its original beauty and integrity.
I cherish a summer evening in 1983 when the Seattle International Film Festival projected the British Film Institute’s nitrate Technicolor print of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp—one of the first showings in America of that inimitable 1943 masterpiece uncut, with its wraparound time scheme intact. A few years later, SIFF opened a window on something even rarer, the moment at the dawn of the talkies when Hollywood flirted with widescreen photography. Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail—a 1930 epic Western for which its 22-year-old leading man was rechristened John Wayne—enchanted a full house at the Egyptian Theatre in the 1988 fest; the next year brought Roland West’s surreal haunted-house melodrama The Bat Whispers. Untoppable festival experiences.
Recent SIFF seasons have vouchsafed few comparable archival opportunities. Closest to the mark have been some revelations from British cinema: the trenchant postwar film noir It Always Rains on Sunday and the late-silent A Cottage on Dartmoor. Which is not scorn things like last year’s slate of restorations from the Film Foundation—The River, Senso, Drums Along the Mohawk—but those films either were familiar from repertory and Turner Classic Movies showings, or about to be featured for home viewing as Criterion DVDs and Blu-rays. And however superb the restorations were, two of them looked “soft” as projected at SIFF.
Speaking of showmanship, I was appalled to learn that the Technicolor classic Black Narcissus was offered last Saturday not as a 35mm movie but as a projection from Blu-ray—and there were, as the delicate phrase goes, “digital issues” compromising the presentation. The Criterion Blu-ray is a thing of beauty (and I’m thrilled to own it), but if a film festival is going to present a landmark of cinematography, they damn well ought to show the film.
If you’re not going to do it right, why do it at all? Especially when, as with BlackNarcissus, the picture has had other showings in Seattle art theaters and museum auditoriums in recent years, not to mention frequent airings on TCM. Why, with hundreds of worthy, essentially unseen archival candidates, do you decide to show this movie again? Now? And badly?
In the circumstances, it’s hard to know whether to be irked or relieved that the number of archival presentations at SIFF this year has dropped to seven. Make that four, since three of the programs aren’t old movies but new documentaries about old movies. Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff played last weekend. HurricaneKalatazov, a portrait of Mikhail Kalatazov, director of The Cranes Are Flying and I Am Cuba, is coming June 4 and 5. TheseAmazingShadows, a documentary on the National Film Registry, will show once only, Monday, May 30, 1:30 p.m. at the Harvard Exit.
Of the three oldies remaining, one sounds like a clear case of “avoid like the plague.” Raoul Walsh’s 1924 TheThiefofBagdad is a well-loved Douglas Fairbanks classic and a milestone in the career of production designer William Cameron Menzies. On its own recognizance the film would be welcome, but what SIFF plans to show is “The Thief of Bagdad Re-imagined by ‘broadcast legend’ Shadoe Stevens with the Music of the Electric Light Orchestra.” Yes, by all means drag that hoary old silent movie kicking and (silently) screaming into our culturally enlightened age by slapping on a rock music score. Thursday, May 26, 7 p.m. at the Neptune.
The Night of Counting the Years is a lovely title, lovelier than the Egyptian original, TheMummy. Unlike English-language efforts of that name, this 1969 film by Shadi Abdel Salam is a subtle and delicate art film, a meditation on the passing of a remote community that’s survived by selling off their nation’s ancient artifacts. Revived at the 2009 New York Film Festival, the movie will be shown at SIFF—yep, digitally—Tuesday, May 31, 7 p.m. at SIFF Cinema.
Happily, Federico Fellini’s epochal LaDolceVita will have its black-and-white Totalscope splendor served up on celluloid. It’s impossible to overstate the impact this three-hour canvas of Roman brio and oh-so-voluptuous decadence had on audiences half a century ago. As the central figure, a bored, charming, benignly amoral journalist, Marcello Mastroianni became an international star (incidentally, among many other things, the movie gave the world the term “paparazzi”). The festival guide says, “Newly restored with funding from the Film Foundation and Gucci.” Bring it on. Monday, May 30, 10 a.m. at the Harvard Exit.