One of the highlights of this year’s edition of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival was the retrospective: viewers who were able to travel to the Czech Republic enjoyed a 10-title series devoted to the Film Foundation. The tribute was originally set for last year, in honor of the organization’s 30th anniversary, but was postponed due to the pandemic.
First established in 1990, with Martin Scorsese as its main founder and public face, the Film Foundation is a non-profit that focuses on film preservation and the exhibition of restored movies. For years, the organization (whose board of directors includes the likes of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Sofia Coppola, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Christopher Nolan) has been a good friend of most festivals, with Scorsese himself frequently in attendance whenever a title restored by the Foundation plays at Cannes or the Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, Italy (most recently in 2018 for the 1946 Mexican film Enamorada).
That was not the case this year, but the filmmaker gave his blessing to Karlovy Vary’s endeavor, which was curated by the festival’s artistic director Karel Och and film critic and programmer Joseph Fahim. The aim, as the latter told me, was to offer a diverse range of films to festival attendees, with titles ranging from 1934 (Mexican horror The Phantom of the Convent) to 1991 (Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day and Nina Menkes’ Queen of Diamonds), with one unifying message: “We wanted to challenge the notion of the canon of great movies, just like the Film Foundation itself does.”
That is perhaps the greatest irony of the two-year discourse surrounding Scorsese’s dislike of superhero movies: while fans of Marvel and DC were quick to label him an elitist, out-of-touch gatekeeper, the director of Taxi Driver and The Irishman has been anything but for three decades, using the Film Foundation to democratize the global film canon and encourage institutions and film buffs to think outside the box.
No film is unworthy of preservation, as underlined by two of the organization’s most prominent offshoots – the World Cinema Project, which preserves and restores neglected films produced outside of North America (to date, 46 titles have received the initiative’s support), and the African Film Heritage Project, which focuses specifically on Africa and allows local audiences to see films that received limited theatrical circulation at the time of their original release.
Such a Herculean undertaking, part of which U.S. viewers can check out in a dedicated (and regularly updated) section on the Criterion Channel, is vital in a world where only the most important films – and filmmakers – are considered worthy of inclusion in the worldwide pantheon (sometimes with the same film receiving multiple restorations in a matter of years).
A good example of this, mere days before Karlovy Vary, was this year’s Locarno Film Festival, with a retrospective devoted to Alberto Lattuada: overlooked even in his native Italy, his filmography has been so mistreated by archives that only one print remains of his feature debut – and it’s not in Italy (adding insult to injury, Lattuada founded one of the major archives in his home country).
The festival audience in the Czech Republic was very responsive, with multiple sold-out screenings (Fahim was especially happy about Putney Swope drawing crowds without any major push on social media, such was the allure of Robert Downey Sr.’s satire of the advertising world, largely unseen by European viewers).
This was a trend that started at the very beginning of the event, with the inaugural retrospective screening: Michael Curtiz’s partially forgotten Hemingway adaptation The Breaking Point, which played in the Grand Hall (Karlovy Vary’s main venue) at 8:30 in the morning with virtually no empty seats – a positive consequence of the festival’s policy of having theaters at capacity, provided all attendees could prove they were vaccinated or had a negative test result.
Curtiz’s movie was one of two 35mm prints shown at the retrospective. The other was Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, which won local audiences over with what Fahim considers the greatest performance in American cinema – Gena Rowlands as the mentally unbalanced Mabel Longhetti – on a large screen, as part of that vital shared experience that gives added value to the effort required to preserve these gems.