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Silent Sunday Nights - July 2017
Remind Me

Love Among the Ruins (2015)

Within its economical running time of 68 minutes, the 2015 production Love Among the Ruins - also known by its Italian title, Amore tra le rovine, and unrelated to George Cukor's eponymous 1975 picture, or to the Evelyn Waugh novel or the Mad Men episode of that name - manages to be three movies at once. First and foremost, it's a faux documentary. It's also a peripatetic visit with researchers, scholars, and archivists, some real and some imaginary. And for its second half, it's a silent film that looks reasonably ancient even though it was made in the 21st century.

The premise of Massimo Alì Mohammad's offbeat mockumentary is that an earthquake in the northern Italian city of Ferrara knocked open a wall in a municipal building that concealed an unsuspected cache of 35-mm film containers. It takes little time for cinema historians to start speculating that the cans might contain a romantic World War I drama made by Ferrara's very own screen pioneers, Etelredo and Urano Lumini, and lost from view ever since its premiere in the early 1920s. Sure enough, research confirms the identity of the find as the Lumini brothers' long-missing Love Among the Ruins, and further scrutiny leads restoration specialists to conclude that notwithstanding the damage it has sustained - from original wear and tear plus a century of lying hidden in a wall - it can be restored to near-pristine condition and exhibited to new generations of film buffs and cinephiles. The rejuvenated silent picture is then shown in its entirety.

There are germs of truth in all this. For one thing, Ferrara was indeed jolted by a major earthquake that struck northern Italy in 2012. For another, a great majority of silent films (and a vast number of sound films) have been mislaid, mislabeled, and otherwise lost sight of due to careless handling, incompetent storage, or simple obliviousness to the historical and cultural value of movies after their immediate commercial possibilities have been exhausted. For an example of an actual bonanza of rediscovered silent films, see Bill Morrison's fine 2016 documentary Dawson City: Frozen Time, about old, highly flammable nitrate prints that turned up in a Yukon community that prospered in the gold-rush era but fell on subsequent hard times that ruined its movie theaters without destroying all of the prints that interested townspeople squirreled away. And finally, World War I was an intriguing topic for a host of filmmakers in the 1920s, so it's plausible that budding cineastes like the Lumini brothers would center their story on wartime exploits in general and the deployment of an Italian dirigible in particular.

Beyond these historical facts, almost everything in Love Among the Ruins is pure fiction, some of it served with a mischievously satirical edge - for instance, the fabled Lumini brothers are obviously modeled on France's earliest cinema pioneers, August and Louis Lumière, whose last name also means "light" in English translation. Mohammad invents an elaborate history for the Lumini brothers, outlining their day jobs - one was a barber and the other, who worked in a cemetery, made film history by lighting sets with cemetery lamps - and filling out their personalities with reminiscences by descendants who share vague memories from bygone years. The discovery, examination, and restoration of their sole motion picture is given a realistic veneer by visits to Italian film archives, interviews with experts and authorities, and a glimpse of the celebrated Giornate de Cinema Muto in Pordenone, Italy, where enthusiasts gather every year for a festival of silent pictures. Mohammad also constructs an atmosphere of mystery over the disappearance of the Lumini brothers' two-reel epic, which may have been suppressed by fascist censors eager to please their bosses with overzealous action against a basically innocuous movie. Or maybe it was just driven off the screen by bad reviews.

Although the people seen in black-and-white footage are mostly invented characters, some of the present-day talking heads in Mohammad's movie are real. They include assorted Italian critics, French restoration expert Serge Bromberg, and American composer-pianist Donald Sosin, a silent-movie specialist who wrote the score for the faux documentary as a whole and the silent film within it.

Love Among the Ruins has been compared with Forgotten Silver, a clever faux documentary by Peter Jackson and Costa Botes that bamboozled many viewers when it premiered on New Zealand television in 1995, and also with Michel Hazanavicius's 2011 comedy The Artist, which mimics silent-film techniques in different ways. A filmmaker with multiple skills, Mohammad wrote, directed, and edited Love Among the Ruins, and he has credits for the visual effects, special effects, and sound mixing as well. This is his first feature, and while it's less memorable than the films it's been likened to - a Hollywood Reporter review called it a "deeply sincere exercise in movie-nerd fantasy" lacking the "charm" that enlivened Hazanavicius's picture - it's a likable effort that should appeal to open-minded admirers of vintage cinema.

Director: Massimo Alì Mohammad
Producers: Susan Harmon, Richard Meyer
Screenplay: Massimo Alì Mohammad
Cinematographer: Edo Tagliavini
Film Editing: Massimo Alì Mohammad
Art Direction: Elisa Leonini
Music: Donald Sosin
With: Mary Di Tommaso (Ester Menegatti, Gioiella Balboni), Massimo Malucelli (Atlas Ferraguti, Mazzingo Zappaterra), Stefano Muroni (Demode Respighi, Faloiser Foschini), Filippo Parma (Calipodio Govoni, Isler Pavani), Edoardo Siravo (Secondo Menegatti, Ermes Cabrini), Serge Bromberg (himself), Donald Sosin (himself)

by David Sterritt