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San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2022

Charles Bryant and Alla Nazimova’s Salomé (1922)

The Castro Theatre in San Francisco, one of the most beloved cinemas anywhere, turns one hundred this year. Over the past few months, leaders of the LGBTQ communities in the famed neighborhood have expressed concern that Another Planet Entertainment, the Berkeley-based concert promotion company that took over management of the theater earlier this year, may not be taking into account the queer cultural heritage of the venue as it plans a thorough revamping of both the structure and the programming. For one week at least, though, those concerns can be set aside as the Castro hosts the San Francisco Silent Film Festival—“the finest showcase of silent-era films in North America,” as Jonathan Marlow puts it at Hammer to Nail—from Thursday through May 11.

This year’s twenty-fifth edition, originally slated for 2020 and rescheduled for 2021 but called off both times as the virus raged, will open with Foolish Wives (1922). Director Erich von Stroheim spent a fortune recreating Monaco casinos on the coast of California. “For audiences,” writes Dennis Harvey at 48hills, “that paid off in a lewd extravaganza pitting American innocence against European decadence, as the monocled, chrome-domed auteur played a sleek con man bent on seducing (and defrauding) a bored diplomat’s wife in Monte Carlo.” The screening will be accompanied live by a new score from Timothy Brock, who will conduct the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Orchestra.

Among Harvey’s other recommendations is Limite (1931), the only film directed by Mário Peixoto, who was twenty-two at the time. On a small boat lost at sea, a man and two women look back on their lives. “With its languid pace and nonexistent ‘plot,’ these two hours ought to be a pretentious slog,” writes Harvey. “Yet there is nothing quite like it, certainly not in the silent era; it’s a photographically beautiful, mysterious, evocative film whose experimental poetry (and techniques such as solarized images) anticipate later innovators like Jean Vigo and Maya Deren. It languished in obscurity for decades, despite the admiration of figures from Eisenstein and Welles to Scorsese, before being restored in recent years.”

On Saturday, San Francisco Chronicle arts and culture reporter Tony Bravo and drag performer Peaches Christ will introduce Salomé (1922), an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 play starring Alla Nazimova, codirected by Charles Bryant and Nazimova, and featuring sets designed by Aubrey Beardsley. Dancing the dance of the seven veils, Salomé is rewarded the head of John the Baptist by her stepfather, King Herod. “On its own,” writes Bravo, “this is one of the Bible’s weirder stories, but given the highly gestural acting style, and the fact that Nazimova was playing a sixteen-year-old at forty-two, it’s truly one of the oddities of the silent era.” Salomé’s “legendary status in silent film and queer circles . . . owes to the film’s radiant cinematography, compelling visuals and a longstanding rumor that everyone in the cast and production was just as queer as Wilde and Nazimova.” The Matti Bye Ensemble will play a live score on piano, glockenspiel, violin, musical saw, and percussion.

Writing for Film International, Thomas Gladysz calls Ukrainian director Heorhii Tasin’s Arrest Warrant (1926) “a must-see film, poignant, and timely.” Vira Vareckaja plays Nadia, who is left alone with a trove of secret documents when her husband is forced to flee the city as the White Army advances. “Expressionist effects, at times riveting and then distressing, highlight Nadia’s psychological torture at the hands of the authorities,” writes Gladysz. SFSFF artistic director Anita Monga tells Gladysz that her team had long been looking forward to “sharing this extraordinary film with our San Francisco audience, but now we feel especially keen to remind the world of Ukraine’s independence even within the Soviet system.” Proceeds from this benefit screening on Sunday will go to the World Central Kitchen and the Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre in Kyiv.

With many of the features, including nineteen restorations, preceded by short films, SFSFF 2022 will present a total of twenty-nine programs. For further recommendations, see Michael Barrett at PopMatters and Pam Grady in the Chronicle.

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