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Treasures in early European cinema come to HK screens

Before the advent of modern technology and computerised special effects, early filmmakers had to use their brains, wits and artistic skills to create scenes of mayhem or atmospheric beauty.

Europe was the breeding ground for early cinema, with the first projection of cinematic images. European filmmakers were pioneers in special effects, such as superimposing images, dissolving shots and chrono-photography. To enable audiences to appraise the early cinema's artistic achievements, Hong Kong Film Archive's new programme, "Early European Cinema" will showcase a series of rare early Italian, French and German treasures from December 2003 to March 2004.

Accompanying the screenings is a free exhibition, "Attraction and Magic * Early European Cinema". Audiences will be stunned by the optical tricks used in the 19th century, particularly those of French film director and magician George Melies. And they will be entranced by the enduring images of screen legends. The display will run at the exhibition hall of the archive until February 29, 2004.

Kicking off the retrospective screenings are 18 fine Italian silent films, many in their restored version, to be screened from December 20, 2003 to January 18, 2004 at the Archive's cinema.

Filmmaking in Italy was often associated with patriotic nationalistic themes. While the historical genre was popular throughout Europe, the persistence of the historical film in Italy led to the emergence of a peculiarly Italian style.

The exceptional quality of natural lighting in any weather made shooting on location favourable in Italy. This, together with the Italian people's temperament, which predisposed them to exaggeration and grandiloquence, led filmmakers to specialise in "big" scenes with extras and costumes. The use of grand architecture, luminous space, huge settings, lavish staging of Roman crowds and violent scenes using lions in the arenas produced works that were truly spectacular. Their influence lives on today.

Another phenomenon in early Italian cinema was its powerful star system, well before Hollywood. Immortal images of femmes fatales such as Lyda Borelli, Francesca Bertini and Pina Menicheli continue to amaze audiences today. Crowned as the "Goddess of Passion", women copied Bertini's style while dressmakers and perfume manufacturers named their products after her.

The opening film is the extravagant "Cabiria" (1914), a towering achievement in silent cinema with its tracking shots and gigantic sets, and also the masterpiece that inspired DW Griffith's "Intolerance". Filmed on location in the Alps, Tunisia, Sicily and the Mediterranean, the film takes the audience through the eruption of Mt Etna, the sea battle of Syracuse and the Roman siege of Carthage. Fellini's "The Nights of Cabiria" (1957) is a tribute to this great film.

The stunning "Spartacus" (1913) reconstructs the splendid triumphal pageants and the fierce gladiatorial contests in the amphitheatre of Circus Maximus. Its influence can still be felt in Stanley Kubrick's "Spartacus" (1960) and the recent "Gladiator" (2000). The film will be shown together with "Nero" (1909), a Roman epic about the love triangle between Empress Octavia, Nero, and his new love, Poppea.

Another must-see is "Countess Sara" (1919) featuring diva Francesca Bertini as the arrogant and indulgent countess, who though married, has an affair with a young army officer. The film will be screened together with "The Samaritan Lady" (1915). Before becoming a major diva, Bertini could be seen among the extras in "Salome" (1910), a film based on the play by Oscar Wilde.

Adapted from the novel by Grazia Deledda, "Ashes" (1916) stars Eleonora Duse, the greatest Italian stage star of her time. Though it is her only screen performance, the film goes beyond the spoken medium and touches the audience's heart in a silent but powerful manner. It will be shown together with "The Pilgrim" (1912), a "road movie" complete with contemporary special effects, displaying a host of weird and wonderful angels and demons.

A romantic melodrama, "The Faun" (1917), depicts the love story of a model and a statue. The film's theatrical beauty makes it a rare gem. It will be screened together with the documentary "Fatherland Sentinel" (1927), which records the landscapes, the architecture and the art of the Friuli area in Italy's northeast.

Other notable works include "Caina - The Island and the Continent" (1922), which represents a milestone in the Italian film industry. The film was considered lost until it was rediscovered in 1992 and restored. It will be screened together with "Hedda Gabler" (1919) and "Rataplan" (1914). Not to be missed are the comedy, "I Want to Betray My Husband" (1925), and the family melodrama, "Tragic Return" (1914).

A game session with Christmas gifts will be held after the screenings of the two family films, "Silent Clowns" (1909-1928) and "Ko-Ko the Clown" (1927-1928), on December 25.

All films have English intertitles ("title cards") and apart from "The Faun" and "Fatherland Sentinel", all screenings have live music accompaniment.

Tickets priced at $50 are available at all URBTIX outlets. Half-price tickets are available for senior citizens, people with disabilities, full-time students and Comprehensive Social Security Assistance recipients. There will be a 10% discount for each purchase of six to 10 tickets and a 20% discount for each purchase of 11 or more tickets.

For programme information call 2739 2139, 2734 2900 or visit or . Reservations can be made by phone on 2734 9009 or on the Internet at .

Ends/Monday, December 15, 2003
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