Every year, in Bergamo, Italy, a small film festival honours titans of European cinema, dusts up lesser known talents, and showcases the most exciting new independent cinema.
The 2019 edition of the Bergamo Film Meeting dedicated a retrospective to Jean-Pierre Léaud, the actor made famous sixty years ago by François Truffaut’s phenomenal feature debut, The 400 Blows. Playing Antoine Doinel across several of Truffaut’s films, Léaud forged with the filmmaker one of the most celebrated actor-director collaborations in all of film history. Their work together extended well into the 1970s, and Léaud also appeared in eight films by Jean-Luc Godard. However, the actor’s still on-going career also includes work outside of the French New Wave, with many other prominent European art-house directors.
In just four days, I saw Léaud bring his idiosyncratic talent to four very different European films. In the oddball comedy I Hired a Contract Killer, from Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki, Léaud plays a French man in London who struggles to call off the assassination he’d earlier called on himself. In the short-film Antoine et Colette, a direct sequel to The 400 Blows, the then-teenaged actor plays an older Antoine Doinel friendzoned by the girl he fancies. The Departure, from Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski, sees Léaud as a slightly unhinged young man obsessed with fast cars. Finally, in Philippe Garrel’s The Birth of Love, the actor’s quirky performance brings a breath of fresh air to an otherwise mundane story of infidelity.
In addition to showing the films on pristine 35mm prints, the festival also invited the man himself. At 74 years of age, Léaud making the trip and introducing a few of the films is no small feat. Being in the presence of an actor practically synonymous with the French New Wave and whose work has been so influential on cinema at large was an immense privilege that most cinephiles can only dream of.
Few film personalities have a career that spans so much of film history, either temporally or geographically speaking, but BFM tends to pick similarly important artists as their focus every year. In 2018, the festival was dedicated to Norwegian actress and director Liv Ullmann, who was present, as well. The 2017 edition focused on Miloš Forman, and 2016 showcased the work of Hungarian director Miklós Jancsó. In 2014, Dirk Bogarde was the object of a large retrospective.
Repertory festivals and screenings often come with a kind of patronising nostalgia where vintage cinema seems hailed as inherently superior, at the expense of contemporary art. BFM thankfully avoids these superior airs by showcasing lesser known filmmakers alongside its main retrospective. This year, the festival presented some of the best work from Scottish actor and filmmaker Peter Mullan, whose career is an intriguing mix of commercial and auteur cinema. BFM understandably focused on the latter, lesser known part of his work. One of the highlights was the short film Close, directed by Mullan himself, a strange and unsettling take on the British kitchen-sink social drama that suddenly veers into mayhem. The film, shot in black-and-white and on 16mm, follows a man so desperate to make the building he lives in suitable for his newborn daughter, that he goes on a murder spree and kills several of his neighbours.
Ken Loach’s My Name is Joe — the film that made Mullan a star — blends the tropes of the kitchen-sink social drama and those of the rom-com. Mullan plays a teetotaler who now lives a humble life as the local football coach that the kids from the neighbourhood look up to. The actor’s breathtaking talent lifts the character from cliched characterisation, making Joe’s tenderness and his sudden bouts of anger entirely believable as the contrasting impulses of a complex individual. To those unfamiliar with Mullan’s work, this selected retrospective was an opportunity to discover a true talent; to others, a chance to celebrate a wonderful actor and imaginative director.
BFM has more than one string to its bow, and watching everything it has to offer is an impossible challenge. Beside a competition line-up featuring celebrated recent independent films, such as Richard Billingham’s Ray & Liz and Benjamín Naishtat’s Rojo, the festival also programmed its regular documentary strand called Close Up. Marcus Lindeen’s The Raft was an amusing and, at times, unexpectedly dark doc about a failed social experiment from the 1970s, a time when this kind of science seemed as popular as it was poorly regulated. Reconstructing the eponymous raft on which five men and six women sailed across the Atlantic for three months in 1973, Lindeen invites the surviving participants to talk about their experience. From their testimonials, it appears that what emerged from the experiment was not the truth that the scientist responsible expected. Rather than unveil the participants’ innate impulse for aggression, this forced isolation and the struggle for survival only revealed the anthropologist’s own shortcomings.
While many festivals struggle to combat classist and patronising impulses in cinephilia, the Bergamo Film Meeting appears little concerned about distinctions between the old, the new, the popular, and the unknown. Every strand of its rich program instead seems built upon the principle that films of all kinds are worthwhile, and should be accessible to both cinephiles and more casual viewers. BFM offers audiences a new, fresh eye on films both old and new.