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Abel Gance, visionario, disordinato, impetuoso, idealista, concepì lo
spettacolo come un mezzo per diffondere sentimenti, e realizzò grandi spettacoli per diffondere
grandi ideali: l'eroismo, la fraternità, l'amore. Gance, autodidatta, era tutt'altro che colto; fu
influenzato perciò dalla letteratura popolare, agiografica, avventurosa e sentimentale, mentre nel
cinema tentava di superare Griffith, sia nella scenografia sia nel montaggio. L'incongruenza, la
sproporzione, fra i mezzi (retrogradi) e il fine (audace), ovvero il mediocre soggettista e il geniale regista,
fece dei suoi film tanti capolavori falliti.
J'accuse (1919), il miglior film di guerra francese, è un'epopea
antimilitarista; ben diverso dalle oleografie nazionaliste del tempo, prende lo spunto dalla vicenda di una
donna violentata dai tedeschi mentre il marito è al fronte per lanciare una violenta accusa contro
la follia della guerra: alla fine i soldati morti in battaglia resuscitano e chiedono conto del proprio
sacrificio agli uomini e alle donne per cui hanno combattuto; per tutto il film l'azione al fronte e quella a
casa procedono in parallelo, e la prima è subordinata alla seconda.
La Roue (1923), mosaico di poemi visivi, segna l'adesione di Gance
all'impressionismo e il trionfo al montaggio rapido (immagini drammatiche che si succedono a ritmo
Il film era originariamente di otto ore, ma venne accorciato a quattro.
Il racconto e` sostanzialmente un melodramma vecchio stile, semplicemente
adattato alla vita "moderna" (nel senso di scorporata dalla natura)
La vita dei ferrovieri prima e quella dei paesaggi innevati delle Alpi poi forniscono al regista
diverse occasioni per affreschi umani, mentre le rotaie, il vapore, le gallerie, sfociavano in un
dramma meccanico di energie brutali.
Il melodramma si serve di metafore visive, simboli e fa riferimenti alla mitologia (alla condanna di Prometeo al Calvario di Gesù).
Sisif is a railway engineer who witnesses a train wreck and narrowly avoids
that another train crashes into it. In the process he saves a little girl,
Norma. The following day he finds a letter from Norma's mother in which she
tells of her misfortunes after her husband died. Norma's mother died in the
wreck, and Norma is now an orphan. Sisif decides to raise her as his own
daughter so his little boy Elie will have a sister. Sisif's wife is dead too.
Fifteen years later Norma is a beautiful young woman and Elie is a handsome
young man who works as a violin maker. Sisif is an unhappy man, though.
He gets drunk in the tavern after gambling and losing all his money. A friend
tells him that another engineer, Jacobin, is in love with Norma. This arouses
his jealousy and results in a brawl. However, Sisif puts the railway above
everything else, and interrupts the fight when it's Jacobin's turn to board
a train. There is something sinister in Sisif's protective attitude towards
Norma. Elie is unhappy too, but for a different reason: he hates the noise and
pollution of modern society, and dreams of living in a renaissance court.
Jacques is a wealthy railway manager who likes Norma. Norma sees the family
is unhappy, getting poorer by the day. If she accepts Jacques' marriage
proposal, the family would get rich and all problems would be solved.
It also turns out that Jacques is getting rich by Sisif's inventions and paying
him very little for them. Sisif is too busy being obsessed with Norma, though.
He is even jealous of his own son and would like to send Norma away in order to
protect her from all the men who fall in love with her. He is losing his mind.
Of all people, he decides to confess his sinful thoughts to Jacques. In a series
of flashbacks he relates how one day he found himself staring lasciviously at
Norma's legs (while a train was passing by).
He also tells Jacques that Norma is not his daughter.
The conversation has the effect to double Jacques' determination with Norma,
even though Elie tries to dissuade Norma from accepting.
Later Sisif tries to commit suicide by throwing himself under a locomotive
but his saved by a fellow engineer.
Added to the reports that he is an alcoholic and a gambler, this event leads
to a warning that he might be fired.
Jacques proposes, threatening to tell Norma her real origin if Sisif does
not consents. Sisif becomes even more desperate. Norma is sad to leave the
humble house where she grew up, despite the prospect of a wealthy new lifestyle.
It is Sisif himself who is in charge of the train that takes her to the big
city. Mad with jealousy, he increases the speed of the train to unsafe levels.
(Sisif's madness is rendered through a a futuristic symphony of dials, smoke, wheels and rails).
However his friend stops the train in time. Norma goes on to live in Jacques'
mansion, but remains nostalgic about the world of the railways. At home Elie
finds out the secret and realizes that his father has always loved Norma.
Elie now hates his father for not telling him the truth, that could have
allowed him to marry Norma. Elie now has dreams of living in renaissance times
but this time he can sing about his love to his princess Norma.
The film juxtaposes black and white, both physically, metaphorically and morally.
The first half is black because it is set in the world of the railways, where
coal paints everything black (and what is not black is evil, as in the case of
the manager who marries the girl), and it is black because the protagonist's
feelings are dark. This part peaks with Sisif's madness, rendered through a a futuristic symphony of dials, smoke, wheels and rails.
The second half is set in the mountains, where life is purer and the dominant
element is the snow.
The pure girl is contexted by the man who saved her life, by his son and by her
husband. They are all cursed by her beauty. Two of them die and the third one
has to live blind for the rest of his life nursed by her, never to see her again
(as if only blindness, not being able to see her, returned him to a state of purity himself).
Sisif has an accident and that hurts his eyes. Desperate that his rival Jacobin
will now drive the train that he named after Norma, he steals a locomotive
and crashes it. The superiors fire him and send him to run a
cable car on a mountain. There his eyesight rapidly deteriorates and the doctor
warns him that he will soon be blind.
Elie has finally made an important discovery and
created a better kind of violin. It is used for a concert at a resort where
Elie and Jacques are vacationing.
The concert is a success and Elie might become
rich. More importantly, Norma finds out where her old family lives. Elie hides
in a special violin a love letter for her. Jacques finds the violin and the
love letter, and decides to fight Elie. They fight on the brink of a ravine.
Jacques wins. Norma arrives only in time to see Elie fall to his death.
But Jacques dies too of the wounds. Sisif bans Norma from his sight, holding
her beauty responsible for all the tragedies. Then one day Sisif realizes that
he is totally blind. He builds a huge cross and carries it like Jesus to the
top of the mountain where his son was killed. Norma, who has been ruined after
Jacques' death, is there too and she takes
shelter in his house, at first hiding from him. She becomes his nurse in his
old days, and they find happiness again. The villagers invite Norma to come
and dance with them. They dance in the snow, making the shape of a wheel,
while her father at home peacefully dies.
Napoléon (1927) fu il kolossal storico che consacrò i
suoi fallimenti, una sinfonia d'immagini liriche potenti e frenetiche.
Il film seguiva Napoleone
dall'infanzia alla gloria, presentando le vicende pubbliche della Rivoluzione e del Terrore, e quelle private
del giovane ufficiale e di Josephine.
Tecnicamente fu impiegato un arsenale impressionante di espedienti; in
particolare Gance fece fare i salti mortali alla macchina da presa: sulla groppa di un cavallo al galoppo, o
scagliata in mare, o su un'altalena, per riprendere i punti di vista più oggettivi. Impiegò
inoltre uno schermo triplo di immagini simultanee (split screen)
per le scene di battaglia.
Piccolo genio del cinema monumentale, dello splendore delle immagini, degli
effetti spettacolari, del ritmo travolgente, Gance peccò sempre di retorica e banalità, ma la
sua influenza sul cinema francese (e sovietico) fu enorme.
Il suo robusto cinema eroico non fu altro in realtà che una
manifestazione di compromesso (fra cinema commerciale e cinema d'avanguardia) della romantica
grandeur di cui era pregno l'animo dei francesi negli anni venti.